Helping Kids with Fears
Support your child in his fear. Don’t try to convince your child out of his fear.
My son is terrified of needles. He loses it on the way to the doctor’s office.
My daughter wants to have a sleepover at her best friend’s house but always backs out right before.
My son is terrified of fire. He cries at birthday parties when candles are lit and at hibachi restaurants when there’s a small flame on the table.
What do we do about our children’s fears? Well, let’s start with what fears are before we dive into the helping section.
Fear is a feeling brought on by perceived threat. Fear registers in our body as a set of somatic experiences – most often, things like elevated heart rate, chest tightness, discomfort in our stomach. These internal experiences tell us, “I am in danger right now.” Children don’t exaggerate their fears or make them up for attention; they experience panicky feelings inside their bodies and need adult help to feel safe again.
So, once we recognize that our child is in a fear state, how should we respond? How do we help a child move from an “I’m in danger” state to an “I’m safe” state?
Let’s start with what most of us have the urge to do: take our children out of their fears. We often have the instinct to tell our children why they shouldn’t feel so worried. It’s as if your child is saying, “This feels scary to me!” and we have the urge to reply, “No, no, your feeling is totally wrong! Everything is safe around you.”
There are three reasons, two short-term and one long-term, why convincing-out-of-fear doesn’t work:
1. Short-term reason: Once a child is fearful, his body enters into threat mode. In this “I’m in danger” state, the logical-thinking part of our brain turns off so we can focus our energy on survival. This means that when your child is in fear mode, logic cannot deliver a sense of safety. What can? Connecting to your child’s fear so he is no longer alone in it. More on that to come.
2. Short-term reason: When we try to convince a child out of her fear, we miss out on learning any information that the fear might have for us. A “Here’s why you don’t need to be scared” approach focuses on providing your child a new and different experience. A “Huh, there must be something to this” approach focuses on learning more about your child’s current experience. For example, asking about a fear of dogs might allow you to learn that your child just read a book where the main character was bit; asking about a fear of being alone might lead you to learn about something that happened one afternoon when you were at work; asking about a fear of taking the school bus might lead you to learn that your child just witnessed a fight between two students. Learning the details around a fear gives you more information to help your child.
3. Long-term reason: One of the most important things to teach our children is that they can trust their feelings of threat and discomfort. I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say that I want my daughter (and of course, my sons too) to one day trust her feelings that say something like, “Hm… something is off with my boss here. The ‘icky, uncomfortable feeling in my body is definitely real. I can trust it.” If we want our children to become young adults who trust their own feelings of discomfort, we need to validate our children’s fears today.
Ok, let’s say I’ve convinced you – ok, Dr. Becky, I see why it may not be so great to respond to my child’s fear with a logical explanation of his safety. What should I do, then? Do I need to avoid doctors or sleepovers or birthday parties with candles forever? Not at all. Read on for four steps for responding to your child’s fear.
Step 1: Talk to your child about his fear.
1. Open up the conversation about your child’s fear. Start with something like: “Tell me more about what it is like to go to the doctor / go on a sleepover / see fire. I want to learn more so I can better understand.” If your child is younger and you think he might not know what to say, you can start with something like, “Seems that going to the doctor / going to a friend’s / seeing fire feels scary to you.”
2. Ask more, tell less. Questions might include:
“Is there something specific you’re worried might happen?”
“What do you think it’s going to feel like?”
“What’s the worst thing you imagine happening?”
“Is there a particular part of the experience you think about or imagine with worry?”
3. Restate to understand. After you’ve gathered information, restate what you’ve learned to your child to see if you “have it right.” Something like, “Ok, let me see if I have this right. Earlier in the week, you wanted to go for a sleepover, but then you thought about being in a different bed and about how Ruby doesn’t have a nightlight. Then you felt so nervous about being there and wanted to stay home. Did I get that right?”
Step 2: Provide validation that your child’s fear “makes sense”
1. Validate your child’s fears. This will not make the fear worse. Providing a narrative so your child understands her fear is key in helping children feel brave enough to confront a fear. Something like:
“Shots do hurt. And you’re someone who really thinks about things in advance. So makes sense that you’re nervous about getting your shots.”
“You really love having a nightlight in your room and sleeping with all of your cozy stuffies. Now you’re imagining being in a new room, in a new bed, in the total darkness… no wonder you’re feeling nervous and scared about that!”
“You remember being burned by candle wax and how much that hurt. Seems that after that experience, you became scared of candles and anything with fire. I understand, that makes sense.”
2. Tell your child how glad you are that you talked about this fear. Use the word “important.” Something like, “I’m so glad we are talking about this. This is really important stuff.”
Step 3: Engage your child to problem solve with you. Offer “leading” ideas but then allow your child to experience the “aha” moment of brainstorming a coping mechanism. Resist the urge to explain the fear away or solve the problem on your own.
1. Now that you’ve learned more about the fear, see if there’s a way to offer support within the fear. Phrases like “I wonder” and “I’m thinking about” help engage your child in problem solving. Some ideas:
“Hm… I’m thinking about how scary shots feel and how the worst part is worrying about how much it is going to hurt. I’m wondering if we can use your thoughtfulness to help here, if we can learn about the things people do to help the pain of a needle. Almost like instead of trying to avoid the subject, we can become experts on it!”
“Hm… I’m thinking about how the scariest part of fire is your worry that it’s going to touch your body. I wonder if there’s anything we can do when we go to Skylar’s birthday party so you can stay in the room when the cake comes but also feel safe that the candle wax won’t touch you.”
“Hm… I keep thinking about how it’s the different bed and the darkness that are the scariest parts of a sleepover. I wonder if there’s anything we can think of to help with those two things, like if there’s any way to make Ruby’s trundle bed feel more like yours or any way to get more light into Ruby’s room.”
Step 4: Teach general coping strategies to deal with fear and uncertainty
1. When things are calmer, teach deep breathing and a self-talk mantra.
Read my post on Deep Breathing and teach your child this same method. Incorporate deep breathing practice once daily when your child is not in a fear state. Practice in the morning, before bed, or some random time after school.
Teach your child a self-talk mantra. Try out “I can get through this. I can get through this” or “It’s ok to feel scared. It’s ok to feel scared.”
2. Share with your child your Slowly-Coping-With-A-Fear story. Something like “Reminds me of when I was about your age, and I felt so scared of loud noises / dogs / bugs. I still remember how bad those moments felt in my body.” Do not offer a quick fix in your story like, “But then I realized that I was safe and it was ok.” Instead offer a story of slow coping, like: “I remember talking to my dad about it a lot… and realizing it was ok to feel scared. I remember that with my dad I would read a lot about dogs, then I’d start to walk closer to dogs with him, and then one day, my dad helped me touch a dog. Little by little, dogs felt less scary. It was such hard work to be brave when I was feeling scared!”
Try This at Home:
Two key things to take from this post: 1) We cannot use language and logic to help our child “un-feel” a fear feeling. 2) Our kids’ most uncomfortable feelings – fear included – need a parent’s validation and support. If all you do is connect to your child’s discomfort with your loving presence (“That feels scary to you. I’m here with you, you’re not alone.”), you’ve done 90% of the work.
Review the 4 steps to Helping Your Child with His Fear. Ask yourself which of the 4 Steps would come most naturally to you. Approach your child and discuss her fear starting with that step – it’s fine if it’s not Step 1.