By Liza Bonin, Ph.D.
n 0pt">‘There’s a Monster in My Closet!’
n 0pt">As a natural part of growth and development, children will develop fears. Fears become a reason for concern only when they are persistent and interfere with a child’s daily routine. When a fear reaches this level, it’s often identified as an “irrational fear” or “phobia” – an intense concern about an object or situation that would not trouble most people. Whether or not a fear can be defined as “irrational” depends on a child’s age and level of development.
n 0pt">Toddlers often have fears involving separation, noises, falling, animals and insects, of using the potty, bathing and bedtime. Common fears among preschoolers include animals and insects, monsters and ghosts, getting lost, divorce, loss of a parent and bedtime. Fears of separation, noises, falling, new situations (especially starting school), social rejection, war and burglars often affect school-aged children. Teen-agers and adolescents fear new situations (going to high school or college), war, divorce and sexual situations.
n 0pt">While specific events, such as falling, getting burned or being chased by a dog, may also trigger lasting anxiety, many fears are a function of temperament or mood. Children’s fears may increase during a time of stress. Children may release their stress or act out their grief by demonstrating what they are afraid of. Major life events, such as a new baby, moving, divorce or death of a loved one, can intensify fears. It’s important to keep in mind that children whose parents show anxiety, worry a lot or tend to overact, are modeling behaviors for their children
Parents can help their children calm fears by following some simple tips:
• No matter how silly they seem, respect your child’s fears. A negative reaction from you isn’t useful and can intensify a fear. A negative reaction would be one that’s dismissing, sarcastic or punishing.
• Be empathetic and sensitive toward your child. Give him your support.
• Paint positive feelings for your child. Remind her of things she has conquered in the past.
• Comfort and reassure your child. Empathetically send the message, “You can do it. It will be OK. You can handle it.”
• No matter how difficult it is, avoid being overprotective. This can increase the number of fears your child develops or intensify the ones he already has.
• Help children develop constructive coping plans in advance by anticipating situations that might result in fear and anxiety. Constructive plans usually involve encouraging your child to face her fears in a manageable way. Remember, children with anxious temperaments tend to do best when their environment is structured and predictable.
While many of these behaviors are a normal part of childhood, you should consult your child’s doctor if his fears are interfering with family activities, creating problems in developing friendships, being used as an excuse to miss school, disrupting sleep patterns, and/or resulting in compulsive behavior.
Dr. Liza Bonin is a clinical psychologist and head of the School-Age Therapeutic Intervention program at Texas Children’s Hospital. For more information on the hospital’s Learning Support Center, visit www.texaschildrenshospital.org.