From the time they’re little, kids have fears. Some of these are transient, and others stick around for a long time. Most of us are familiar with a baby’s fear of separation from his mother, and a three-year-old’s terror of spiders, but what about bigger kids? During my 12-year-old’s recent well-child visit, I mentioned to his pediatrician that he suddenly seems more fearful. She explained that during puberty, hormones and brain development can incite fears that hadn’t existed before or exacerbate previously low levels of anxiety.
It can be very difficult for parents to know what to do when their child exhibits fears that to an adult seem irrational or overblown. Here are some tips on dealing with childhood fears and phobias:
- Remember that the fear is very real to your child. One of my children used to be afraid that an animal would break into our house via any windows left open. While this sounded absurd to me, it was very real to her. Don’t ridicule or shame your child for her fears.
- Assure your child that his physical response to fear is normal. Occasionally, my son will become more fearful of his pounding heart and churning stomach than by whatever prompted the fear in the first place. Explain to your child that this “fight or flight” response is a result of the body’s release of adrenaline, and is completely normal. Once the fear passes, the symptoms will, too.
- Encourage him to talk about what’s making him feel afraid. Sometimes even adults find things much less scary when they’re talked about aloud.
- Realize that in many cases, fears are simply a phase that your child will outgrow in time. Fears of the dark, of monsters under the bed or of mama forgetting about her at daycare are all normal during early childhood. As kids get older, they may tend to fear things that could really happen, such as a house fire or a car accident.
- If you have concerns about a fear being abnormal or excessive, ask your pediatrician about whether counseling is warranted. A friend has a son who is terrified of thunderstorms to the point that he spends hours shaking in terror during the summer, which, in Florida, usually includes daily storms. A teenager who is still afraid of goblins lurking under the bed is an example of a child exhibiting non-age-appropriate fears. A counselor can help by teaching your child strategies for coping with fears.
Fear is a normal and healthy response when it is warranted. For example, it’s good for kids to have a moderate amount of fear concerning moving cars on a busy road; these types of fears help to keep kids safe from harm. If a school-aged child is terrified to cross a parking lot, however, then that’s not a healthy fear that will keep him safe. Although it seems like an obvious distinction to you, it doesn’t to your child, whose brain and capacity for rational thought is not fully developed. Remain supportive and encouraging when dealing with childhood fears, but don’t be afraid to seek a professional’s opinion if you are concerned.
What are some strategies that you’ve used in helping your child deal with fears?