Fear is a normal and inescapable part of being human. We all have things we’re afraid of, whether that's a real threat or something we know is irrational. Children and young people are at a stage of life where they’re forming and developing fears, perhaps for the first time. As parents we want to comfort our children, protect them from negative experiences and help them. Here are some ways you can support your child in managing their fears:
1) Help your child to understand their fear
Before trying to manage their fears, it’s important to really understand what’s making your child feel afraid. Is it something rational or irrational? Is it something that occurs every day or only in occasional circumstances? Is it really fear, or are they struggling to express their dislike for something? By asking questions, observing their behaviour and monitoring their mood, you will gain a better insight into their fear and what might be driving it. It’s important to also reflect on whether your child may be more susceptible to fear, for example, those who are highly sensitive or emotional or have experienced particularly stressful or traumatic events in their lives.
2) Provide calm and reassurance
After taking a bit of time to reflect and seek to understand your child’s specific fears it’s also important to offer them calm and reassurance. Sometimes in the moment fear can cause panic and upset for a child and what they need is the comfort and reassurance of someone they love. If your child appreciates physical reassurance, give them a hug, remind them of your presence and of your protection. Knowing your presence with them in the midst of fear can help them to feel safe and better equipped to cope with their feelings. You can also provide reassurance by sharing the things that scare you. Sometimes all the comfort a child needs is to know they are not on their own.
3) Have an open conversation
If your child is happy to talk about it, try to ask questions which help them to explore what’s frightening them. Fear is usually more complex that what you see on the surface and so asking questions can help to uncover the different layers. For example a child who has a fear of the dark may be afraid of monsters, intruders, death or being alone. Once they’ve shared with you, validate their feelings and take them seriously. Don’t belittle their experience or patronise them even if their fear is something that seems irrational. Acknowledging what they’ve said will help them to feel heard and understood. As you talk you can then help them to think through what’s true and untrue about their fear. Help them to distinguish between facts and feelings. Is this something that could really happen or is it just something I’m feeling? Keep this conversation open so they can bring their questions and concerns to you.
4) Help them to think about consequences
Often children are scared because of uncertainty. You can help them in their fear by talking to them about consequences. For example, if your house was broken into, what would happen, who could you call, how would you be kept safe? It’s helpful for your child to think through how they might cope if their fear came true and what things are in place to protect them. You can also teach them about the things they are afraid of so that they better understand their importance. For example a child who’s afraid of needles might feel better if they understood why they were having it and what it was protecting them from. As you think about the consequences of their fears, ask them if there are things they would like to put in place to make them feel safer.
5) Set realistic goals with your child
If your child’s fear is something they’d like to manage and has begun to impact their life, work with them on a plan to help them overcome it. Sometimes as parents we can go to one of two extremes: throwing our child into the deep end to face their fear head on, or avoiding all places, situations or people who are provoking this fear. Instead try to split their goal into smaller more achievable steps where your child is gradually exposed to their fear at each stage. Encourage them in their efforts even if it takes longer than they’d like or there’s days where they don’t quite achieve their goal. Encouragement will help them to keep going and not give up.
6) Teach them about self-regulation
As your child gradually becomes more exposed to their fears, teaching them about self regulation can be a really important way to help them. Developing self regulation means allowing children to feel fear without always jumping in to rescue them. Giving your child space to sit with their fear helps them to not only assess risk but also gives them a chance to see how they might respond to it themselves. Children can self regulate by finding things that are calming or relaxing for them. They can also do this by challenging their irrational fears. Work with them to compile a collection of these tools to equip them in moments of fear. You can also model this to them as they see you manage your own fears.
7) Monitor the material they're engaging with
So often, children are fearful because of frightening content they’ve been exposed to whether that’s a film they’ve watched, a game they’ve played or something they’ve seen on social media. Material like this can be scary for children but it can also be difficult as a parent to know how to protect them. As hard as it is, it’s so important to make sure you monitor what your children are engaging with, especially if they are becoming more and more fearful. This might mean setting up parental controls, limiting their screen time or talking to them about how to protect themselves online. Through this you can also talk to them about monitoring themselves. Help them to acknowledge when something is frightening them and teach them how to say no when they’re uncomfortable.
8) Look out for signs that their fear is overwhelming them
It’s important to look out for signs that your child’s fear has become too overwhelming for them. Signs of this would be if their fear begins to persist, causes them distress and impacts their daily life. It might be that they begin having panic attacks, develop obsessive behaviour or withdraw from activities they would usually love. If your child begins consistently worrying or showing these kinds of signs, it might be that they would benefit from some more support. If you are concerned your child may be experiencing anxiety here’s some more information for you and how to support your child through it. (link)
We can’t always protect our children but we can help them to manage their fears and reduce their worries through reassurance, modelling and open communication. Working with your child to understand their fear and find small, achievable ways of coping with it will equip them to deal with fear later in life.