Many young kids are afraid of animals and insects (dogs, snakes, spiders), characters in costumes (Santa, Easter Bunny) and things that go bump in the night. Others think they’ll be sucked down the toilet when it flushes. Even kids who don’t believe in the boogeyman may fret about schoolyard bullies.
“Some kids are more fearful than others because they are born with a predisposition to worry,” says San Diego, California clinical psychologist Joanne Wendt, Ph.D. Other fears grow in response to trauma. For example, a child may start to fear bees after being stung himself or seeing a classmate get stung.
Adult role models can also fuel fears. A mom who’s deathly afraid of escalators may pass along anxiety by telling kids moving stairs are slippery and insisting the family take the elevator. “Kids look to parents for cues about whether a situation is safe,” says Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., author of Freeing Your Child from Anxiety. And dismissing concerns isn’t the answer. “Parents can unintentionally feed kids’ fears by reassuring them they have nothing to worry about,” Wendt warns. The best approach is problem-solving. Here’s how.
Identify the issue. When your child comes to you for help with a fear, engage in critical thinking. Questions like “Why are you afraid of this spider?” and “Have you been hurt by a spider in the past?” encourage your child define her fear more clearly. Then, she can start to question its legitimacy.
Fight scary with silly. Have your child draw the thing that scares her. Then, do a goofy makeover. The monster in the closet looks a lot less frightening in a ballet tutu and curlers. “This allows her to take charge of her fear and her imagination,” Chansky says.
Practice self-soothing. Kids can learn breathing and muscle relaxation to calm themselves. The easiest trick? Breathe in slowly while counting to four and breathe out counting to seven. This focuses attention and puts her back in control. “Repeating a special word, phrase or affirmation, such as ‘I can handle this,’ also eases anxiety,” Wendt says.
Step it up. Try systematic desensitization to approach fear gradually. “Make a simple drawing of a stairway from the side view and put your child’s goal at the top,” Chansky says. Start at the bottom and write in steps from the least to most threatening. A child whose goal is to pet a dog might start by looking at pictures of dogs, visiting a pet store and letting a dog sniff her hand. Remind your child to take deep breaths as anxieties escalate.
Be patient. Forcing kids to confront their fears when they aren’t ready will only increase their anxiety. Talk about your own insecurities and model a courageous approach to the unknown. When your child feels overwhelmed, allow him to step back and observe the scary situation from a distance.
Have you ever wondered why your child seems to have a fear of inanimate objects? We’ve got the scoop.
This post was originally published in 2014 and is updated regularly.