Help Your Child Conquer Her Fears

conquering fearby Jeremy G. Schneider, MFT

All young children experience fears. Some fears are based on common things that we anticipate as parents – like being afraid of the dark. Other fears can be related to things that as adults, we might not associate with being afraid. Whatever is causing your child’s fear, here are a few tips to soothe him or her in the moment – and helping your child to learn to soothe him/herself.
Redirect her focus.

The logic behind this one is simple: You can’t be afraid of something you’re not thinking about. If your child is frightened by an idea – like darkness or a nightmare – the first thing to do when your child is afraid is to redirect her attention onto something soothing. She’ll get the greatest benefit if she actively participates. Here are some examples: Sing to her and get her to sing along with you; turning on some favorite music (we like Laurie Berkner and Dan Zanes) and sing along together; tell a story that you make up on the spot – and ask her add to the story; read a story, but ask her about the pictures, or ask her to read to you or tell you the story from the pictures. If your child is singing or telling you a story, she can’t be thinking about something scary!

This tactic also works if your child is nervous about an activity, like performing in a school play. If you can take her mind completely off what’s making her feel nervous, she’ll feel much more relaxed when it’s time to take to the stage.

Helping young children to conquer their fears:

  1. Redirect her attention away from the fear and onto happier thoughts.
  2. Provide unconditional support, no matter how many times your child comes to you with a fear.
  3. Reassure him while you model how he can soothe himself.
  4. Offer a small physical object that makes her feel connected to you or to home.
  5. Never tease a child about her fears.

Provide unconditional support.

Everyone (kids and adults, too) needs support and encouragement to face and overcome their fears. No matter how many times your child comes to you with a fear, let him know that you understand that he’s afraid, that you are there to help him face it in that moment, and that he can learn how to calm his own fears even when you’re not together.

Reassure him as you model how he can calm himself.

For example,

“I know the first day of {activity} is a little scary, but do you realize you've already had 15 first days of school, camp and other activities? Let’s talk about some of those first days and how they turned out." 

“I know you feel nervous about your first T-ball game, but I also know you’ll do your best, and your best is all you need to do today.”

“Meeting a relative for the first time can be scary. But Aunt Emily is my sister and she already loves you. Let’s take out the birthday card and picture she sent you."

Offer a special object that she can keep with her when she’s away from you.

Offer a special object that helps your child feel connected when she’s not with you. It could be a stuffed animal, favorite blanket, a love note or an action figure, even stones or shells that you picked up on a special trip. Wearing a parent’s watch can be very soothing and can instill feelings of trust, pride and connection between the two of you. Anything small that gives your child a connection to you or to home can help them feel better when you’re not together.
Lastly, never tease a child about her fears.

Children are unique and so are their fears. One child may be more fearful than her siblings – or afraid of entirely different things. My own children are twins. When they were very young, my son was afraid of the dark and needed a night light of some sort to go to sleep, while my daughter used a sleep mask to make it darker. But when it comes to heights, the situation reverses: she is terribly afraid of heights (like her Daddy, truth be told), but my son actually enjoys them.

No child feels soothed by being teased about a fear, or by being compared to a sibling or friend who may not have that same fear. When it comes to helping children conquer their fears, we want to lift them up, not push them further down.

Certain fears may seem irrational or even silly when someone is afraid of something that doesn’t frighten you. But for children, this big world is already a little scary and when they have bumped into something that really frightens them, we can help them by being supportive, encouraging and positive so they can learn to think that way on their own.

Jeremy G. Schneider, MFT is a syndicated columnist and therapist specializing in parenting and relationships, involved fatherhood, building strong modern families and overcoming depression. Jeremy lives in New York with his wife and twin son and daughter. and @JGS_Author