"Come on, stop being afraid," "I am really tired of how scared you are to switch off the light," or "Stop being such a cry baby." We often use these words with our children, sometimes in right situations, but many times just because we feel they should do whatever we want them to do, however much it may scare them. Our children grow up with anxieties and fears, and then grow out of them. It is when these anxieties and fears persist, that problems can arise in our children. As much as we parents hope our little ones will grow out of it, sometimes the opposite occurs, and the cause of the anxiety looms larger and becomes more prevalent. The anxiety becomes a phobia, or a fear that's extreme, severe, and persistent.
A phobia can be very difficult to tolerate, both for kids and those around them, especially if the anxiety-producing stimulus (whatever is causing the anxiety) is hard to avoid (e.g., thunderstorms).
Many children experience age-appropriate fears, such as being afraid of the dark. Most kids, with some reassurance, and perhaps a night-light, will overcome or outgrow it. However, if they continue to have trouble, or there's anxiety about other things, the intervention may have to be more intensive.
We can help our children develop the skills and confidence to overcome fears so that they don't evolve into phobic reactions. Here are some steps that may us in helping our children deal with their fears and anxieties:
- We have to recognize that the fear is real. As trivial as a fear may seem, it feels real to our children and it's causing them to feel anxious and afraid. We need to be able to talk about fears- words often take some of the power out of the negative feeling. If we talk about it, it can become less powerful.
- We should never belittle the fear as a way of forcing our children to overcome it. Telling them, "Don't be ridiculous! There are no monsters in your closet!" may get our little ones to go to bed, but it won't make the fear go away.
- We must not cater to fears, though. If our children don't like dogs, we should not cross the street deliberately to avoid one. This will just reinforce that dogs should be feared and avoided. It helps if we provide support and gentle care as we approach the feared object or situation with our children.
- It helps if we teach them how to rate fear. If our kids can visualize the intensity of the fear on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the strongest, they may be able to "see" the fear as less intense than first imagined. Younger children can think about how "full of fear" they are, with being full "up to my knees" as not so scared, "up to my stomach" as more frightened, and "up to my head" as truly petrified.
- We have to teach coping strategies. Using us as "home base," they can venture out toward the feared object, and then return to us for safety before venturing out again. They can also learn some positive self-statements, such as "I can do this" and "I will be OK," which they can say to themselves when feeling anxious.
The key to resolving fears and anxieties is to overcome them. Using these suggestions, we can help our children better cope with life's situations.