Handling Your Child’s Fears

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When your child's fears start to take over his daily life, it's time to get help. Fear is normal ... but sometimes it's not.

“Please turn on the bathroom light … and the hall light … and my nightlight,” says nearly every little kid in the month of October (if not year-round). With scary decorations popping up in the stores and all the spooks and haunts of the season being talked about by one and all, it’s easy to see how your young child can get scared. When it comes to Halloween, he’s excited about picking out his own costume and going door-to-door for candy, but unfortunately, Halloween can also bring other things up for him … like fear. Fear of kids in costumes like zombies, werewolves, Scream masks and more. Fear of walking up to homes or in stores decorated with gravestones, skeletons, vampires and monsters that are designed to make children jump when they get close.

In a study, Pennsylvania State University psychologist Cindy Dell Clark found that most parents underestimate just how terrifying Halloween can be for young kids. Many young children are unable to differentiate what’s real and what’s pretend. This inability to differentiate can cause kids anxiety/fear.

Unfortunately, you’re not going to be able to completely shelter your child from things that scare him. Help him get through Halloween and other fears by reminding him what’s real and what’s not, and gently exposing him to what causes his fear.

FEAR IS NORMAL

Fears are a normal part of growing up, in a sense a “rite of passage,” and typically disappear as children grow older. Jennifer Wells, LISW-S, and Nicole Bosse, PsyD, with the Linder Center of HOPE concur that, “Childhood fears are developmentally appropriate and most ‘fix’ themselves over time.” Childhood fears often change as kids grow older and understand more about the world around them. You can only hope that your child will outgrow his fears, but rarely, the opposite occurs, and the fear gains more impact on daily life — especially if the cause of the fear is hard to avoid (e.g., dogs/storms).

Fears that last extensively can manifest into anxiety or a phobia, which is an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something. Some common childhood fears include:

Fears for Infants/Toddlers

  • Loud noises or sudden movements
  • Strangers
  • Separation
  • Changes in the house
  • Large/unfamiliar objects

Fears during Preschool Years

  • Noises at night
  • Masks
  • The dark
  • Insects
  • Monsters and ghosts
  • Animals

Fears during School Years

  • Storms/Natural disasters
  • Being home alone
  • Snakes/spiders
  • Criticism/punishment
  • Scary news/TV shows
  • Injury, illness, doctors, shots or death
  • Fear of failure, rejection or social embarrassment

Instinctual Fear

Some fears are biologically helpful and can keep children safe. They are, in a sense, an “insurance” policy. Children can be fearful of water unless they know how to swim. If a child has heard that dogs bite, he may think they ALL do without some safe interaction. Some fear is inherently instinctual and helps kids stay alert and safe.

Speaking of safety, society puts things in place to keep people safe, such as fire drills and tornato sirens. It’s important that you talk to your children to ensure them that all is well for the most part and that there is no need to worry.

Books to Help Kids Cope

  • Franklin in the Dark by Paulette Bourgeois
  • There’s an Alligator Under My Bed by Mercer Mayer
  • Curious George Goes to the Hospital by Margret Ray and H.A. Rey
  • Scaredy Squirrel by Melanie Watt

WHEN FEAR TURNS INTO ANXIETY

Sometimes kid fears can grow into anxiety. This occurs when there’s no instant threat to your child’s safety or well-being, but the danger feels real and the self protecting fears are exaggerated. It’s one of the top reasons kids are referred for mental health help; if your child exhibits unusual amounts of anxiety, it’s important to get support.

Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center’s website states, “When fears do not fade and begin to interfere with daily life and activities, an anxiety disorder may be present.”

Ways to help your child cope with fears and anxiety

  • Read books about characters who have overcome fears.
  • Ask why he’s scared. It’s sometimes not what you think. Acknowledge the fear without reinforcing or increasing his concerns.
  • Expose him to things that may be frightening to him. Help him face his fears but don’t force him and know his limits.
  • Model calmness for him.
  • Explain what’s real and what’s pretend.
  • Have him draw a picture of what scares him and how he could worry less.
  • Have him teach you about what he’s scared of — this can help him understand facts versus irrational fear.
  • Be honest! Wells says, “If you tell a child it isn’t going to hurt, but it really does hurt, the lie can reduce your child’s trust.” Explain that the pain is only temporary.
  • Be sympathetic and do not try to persuade him into being fearless.

Helpful Resources

When to Call the Doctor

  • If your child’s fears are repeatedly unreasonable in relation to circumstances
  • Your child’s fear is not typical for his age
  • Fear is impacting your child’s daily life
  • Anxiety is preventing your child from going to school and doing activities he wants to do

Seek help early if you have concerns!

 

How Extreme Fears can Manifest

Trichotillomania
A disorder that involves recurrent, irresistible urges to pull out body hair. It’s not necessarily fear/anxiety related, but may be present in children with anxiety. The urges involve pulling out hair from the scalp, eyebrows or other areas of the body. Symptoms include compulsive hair pulling and hair loss, such as bald patches on the scalp.

OCD
Excessive thoughts (obsessions) that lead to repetitive behaviors (compulsions). Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by unreasonable thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead to compulsive behaviors. OCD often centers on themes such as a fear of germs or the need to arrange objects in a specific manner. Symptoms usually begin gradually and vary throughout life.

PANDAS (Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infections)
A very rare obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and/or tic disorder that suddenly appears following a strep infection (such as strep throat or scarlet fever); or the symptoms of OCD or tic symptoms suddenly become worse after such infection. The symptoms are usually dramatic, happen “overnight and out of the blue,” and can include motor and/or vocal tics, obsessions and/or compulsions. In addition to these symptoms, children may also become moody, irritable, experience anxiety attacks, or show concerns about separating from parents or loved ones.

Tina Pratt is the mom of two littles. She is a former PreK- 5 special education teacher that now works as a behavior coach. She enjoys being a tourist in her own town and finding ways to embed lessons into everyday fun!

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