Two things I know: All kids get afraid. Parents cannot make those fears disappear. But there’s plenty parents can do — and are better able to once they understand their children’s fears are something to be managed, not eliminated.
We can’t make our children’s fears go away. Only they can do that. Our job is to take those fears seriously and be the support our children need to have the strength to handle their own. I know this from years of personal experience with my very afraid young daughter. I realized that she needed her fears for whatever reason I will never know. As soon as we wrestled with monsters who “went away on vacation” and left her in peace, they inevitably came back from vacation. Or the one’s she decided were her friends and who just wanted to be loved were suddenly replaced by mean ones. They did not go away until she didn’t need them anymore.
Know that your child’s fears are your child’s problem, not yours. Therefore you are powerless to take them away. The better you understand this, the more neutral you can be and the better help you will be to your child.
As much as you desperately want your child’s fears to disappear, your reassurance that all will be well does not help. In fact when you tell your child there’s nothing to be afraid of or everything’s going to be fine, the message your child hears is that you don’t understand and cannot be trusted to help.
Whether nightmares, monsters, images, fear of loss or attack, you can tell your child you will be there to protect and keep her safe, but fears hit when she has to go upstairs on her own, at night when it’s dark, when you are not by her side — because they are in her head. Nothing protects us from our own thoughts but different thoughts.
Once you understand you are your child’s coach and sounding board only, try some of the following:
- Talk about it. The more he describes and names his fear the more material he has to work with.
- Draw the fear. Provide paper and crayons and ask your child to show you what her fear looks like.
- Personify the fear. Ask him to give the monster or the image a name of his choosing. When you talk about the fear use this name.
- Give it attributes. Ask lots of questions like, What color is it? What does it feel like? Is it soft, squishy, hard, spikey, hot, cold? Does it have eyes? What color are they? What kind of sound does it make? Does it have fur or skin? Does it pee and poop? Does it wear clothes, go to sleep, have teeth to brush? Does it get scared? Of what? Let your imaginations go wild. The more your child can make the fear something she can relate to, the more control she will have over it.
- Keep drawing. As your child talks about it and describes attributes, the drawings may change.
- Role-play. Take turns being your child and being the fear. Talk to or yell at each other. Ask your child to tell the fear what he wants it to do.
Then, don’t expect that all of this good work will make them disappear. I am convinced children’s fears serve a purpose. Some children have more than others, but all experience fear about something.
This process may not be possible with every fear and your child may not want to do this. Many fears may be very real and stem from bullies, test anxiety, etc. But a form of what is suggested above can be helpful. The older your child, the more you need to tailor the process to what makes sense. Always, the more neutral you are, the more your child will trust you and the process.
Fears come from feeling powerless over an incident, an imagined happening, the future, a nightmare etc. This is the human condition. However, science has offered an amazing antidote to happenings out of our control. To reduce the effects of a traumatic incident that can generalize to similar incidents and even lead to phobias, new research shows that within six hours following a traumatic incident, playing games like Tetris and Candy Crush can reduce lasting effects of the trauma. “…if the process of memory formation is interrupted at this critical period, the memory will be there, but the emotion connected to the initial event won’t be as intrusive.”
If trauma has set in and phobias are present, all of the above can be helpful as well as seeking outside help from a therapist specializing in trauma.
Whoever said childhood is the happiest time of life needs their head examined. Children experience everything through the perceptions of an immature brain and developmental egocentrism. Things hit them hard. We must understand how frightening it can feel.