Being left alone: the dark; dogs; clowns; injections; school; and, of course, the monster under the bed. Perhaps you recognise your own childhood fears in there. But how can you talk to your children about theirs?
Childhood fears of course change as children develop.
At some point between the age of about 10 months and 2 years many young children start to fear being separated from a parent. This might be shown when you drop them off at a nursery or with a relative, or even at bedtime. This is a very normal separation anxiety.
As children’s imaginations develop it can begin to outstrip their ability to tell the difference between and make believe. This is why children from around 4 years old can develop fears about the dark or monsters under the bed. It also explains why their reaction to loud noises or other stimuli can be so fearful, because they react to their ideas about what might be happening as if it’s as real as the event itself.
As they begin to be able to tell the difference between reality and make-believe their fears move on. Whilst imaginary monsters can’t scare them any longer from around 7 or 8 years old they can become afraid of more ‘realistic’ threats – burglars, dogs, car crashes, etc.
As they move through school and adolescence their fears may become more about social and academic pressures – school work, exams, how they look, or not being accepted socially.
Whatever their age though, here are 6 tips on helping your child face their childhood fears.
Accept that fear is normal – remember that how you react will shape how your child sees their fear. Don’t pathologise it, and don’t make a huge thing out of it.
Do talk and listen about it though – so don’t dismiss it or downplay it by just telling them that lots of other people feel the same. Make sure that they know you’re there to protect them.
Make sure your child keeps trying new things – coming across new situations helps children to learn natural coping skills that stand them in good stead around fears. Make sure that they don’t end up in a routine that doesn’t provide enough novelty.
Become more comfortable with them being uncomfortable – as a parent the first instinct is to intervene. However, as they grow you need to help your child to learn to regulate their own emotional state. That means delaying intervening, to gibe then the space to develop the skills they’ll need throughout life.
Be a model – show your children that you can be worried by things and how you face them. Pass on the coping skills, not an impression of unachievable calm. If you do have a phobia that affects your life or behaviour consider getting help – not just for your own mental health, but to make sure you don’t inadvertently teach that phobic reaction.
Recognise when they may need extra help. If your child is obsessing about a fear even when the trigger isn’t present, it’s stopping them from engaging in a favourite activity, or it’s about something far off in time, like an exam or change of school in a year’s time, then talk to a professional about the situation.
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