Some fears need to be managed, while other fears can be overcome with time and education. Here are some facts and suggestions to consider while working with your child’s fears.
Fear itself is not a cure for fear—Forcing a fearful child to “face his fears” is not the best way to help him overcome them, nor is ridiculing a child for being afraid or commanding him to ignore his fears. This approach goes against the very thing the child needs—that being the full confidence that his burden of fear is being shared with Mom and Dad or big brother or sister. Ridiculing and name-calling are antagonistic forces to companionship and trusting relationships.
Education—Methods that promote self-confidence are the best ways to help children overcome their fears, and this can be done in part through education. Children are less likely to be fearful if they have some understanding of the object of fear. When the child learns that the puppy’s actions are playful not threatening, and that the snake is behind the glass and cannot get out, or that thunder has an explanation, he will better be able to manage potential fear with the assurance brought by such knowledge. Educating a child about his natural fears is one of the best ways to reduce fear that parents can use with their child.
Getting acquainted—Giving your child opportunity to get acquainted with the fearful object or situation is another form of education. This may take time since the child’s confidence in the knowledge of what is safe must grow stronger than the fearful experience of the past. Gradually introducing your child to the object of dread through role-playing, actual encounter with the object, or parental example helps alleviate his fears. When your child sees that Mom is not afraid to play with the puppy, he will join in the fun and in time overcome his fear. In contrast, if Mom overreacts to the excited puppy by hopping on a chair, the child will not be far behind her.
Removing fearful stimuli—Remove all inappropriate fearful stimuli from your child’s life. The Wizard of Oz is not a movie for preschool-age child to watch. Even the movie Dumbo can create apprehension. Poor little Dumbo, separated from his Mom and forced to work the circus scene as an oddity, is way beyond the context of your child’s sense of security. Take note of what your child is watching on television, including cartoons. Given the state of the world, even the nightly news can be fear-provoking to children (and adults).
Substitution, not just suppression—Universal in application, this particular suggestion should not be limited to the single category of fear, but applied to any circumstance that employs moral and virtuous opposites. For example, the Ezzos were once approached by a father asking how to deal with his son’s obsessive jealousy. That question leads to a broader one—how do you deal not only with jealousy, but all attitudes of the heart and emotions, including fear? Children of all ages are better served by substitution than by suppression. The father mentioned above was frustrated by his efforts to suppress his son’s jealousy. No matter how hard he tried to keep the lid on it, jealousy continued to leak out.
The problem here and for many parents is not simply the presence of a vice or a weakness, but the absence of a virtue and strength. Suppression of wrong behavior is often achieved by encouraging the opposite virtue. If you want to suppress jealousy, give equal time to elevating the opposite virtue, which in this case is contentment. If you have a child struggling with envy, teach charity. For anger, teach self-control. For revenge, teach forgiveness. Substitution will make all the difference in the world. This same principle applies to childhood fears. Often the problem is not the presence of fear but rather the absence of courage. Parents, by the language they use, tend to focus primarily on the fear (the negative) and not on courage (the positive). Instead of saying, “Don’t be afraid,” parents should consider saying instead, “Be brave” or “Be courageous.” This type of encouragement is not meant to satisfy a moment of fear, but to establish a pattern of belief for a lifetime.
Prevention—Most of the suggestions above that can help overcome fears can also be employed to prevent many fears. Giving a child a heads-up about the neighbor’s dog or how loud the fireworks will sound makes good sense. When dealing with young children, some form of pre-activity warning is better than the shock of discovery.
The fears associated with early childhood are significantly different than those of older children and adults. For that reason, parents must demonstrate a liberal amount of patience, empathy and understanding. They should never view their child’s fears as ‘silly’, attempt to de-legitimize them, or insist their child “toughen up” or “just get over it.” Rather, they should become a calming and reassuring voice. After all, the last thing you want to create is a condition in which your child fears telling you about his fears.