Fears are a normal part of childhood — and so is learning to manage them. Sometimes kids are afraid of imaginary things, like monsters. But often, fears relate to what’s going on in their lives. With the COVID pandemic, for example, kids might worry about their parents getting sick.
Learning to cope with fear isn’t always easy. It’s especially hard for some kids who learn and think differently. They may have trouble processing information and keeping emotions in check.
There’s a lot you can do to help your child manage fears. Here are some things to try.
Take the fear seriously.
Sometimes in an effort to help our kids, we say things like “There’s nothing to be scared of” or “Don’t worry about that.” This doesn’t make your child less afraid. Instead, it can send the message that you expect your child to “get over it.” Or that you don’t believe your child is truly scared.
Not taking fears seriously can make your child feel like it’s not OK to be afraid — or that it’s not OK to talk to you about it.
Help find ways to talk about it.
Not all kids have the words to explain what they’re scared of. Ask specific questions to help your child explain it. For example, if your child clings to you and doesn’t want to be away from you, you can say, “What scares you about me not being here?” “Are you worried about me or worried about you?” “What do you imagine is going to happen?”
Once you have more information, describe it back and confirm you have it right. You could say, “It sounds like you’re anxious when you can’t be with me. You’re telling me you’re afraid something bad will happen to me when I’m away from you. I hear in your voice that you’re really scared. Did I get that right?”
Make a list.
Work with your child to make a list of the things or situations that cause fear. Go over your child’s worst-case scenario.
You can group similar fears together. For example, kids who are afraid something bad will happen to their parents when they’re apart may also be afraid to go to school or to someone else’s home. They might be scared to be left with a babysitter. Those are all part of the bigger fear of being away from you.
Boost realistic thinking.
Fear makes it easy to think the worst is going to happen. It’s the brain’s way of trying to protect us from danger. You can tell your child this. You can also tell your child that the brain doesn’t always know if the danger is real or not.
So, encourage your child to be a “thought detective.” Have your child:
- Listen to the thoughts: Your child may think, “If Mom goes to the grocery store without me, she’s going to get hurt.”
- Figure out if it’s a fact or a feeling: Reframe the thought above as, “I’m worried Mom will get hurt if I’m not at the grocery store with her.”
- Collect evidence to support or disprove it: Every other time Mom has gone to the store alone, she was fine when she came home.
- Challenge the thought: Some kids can learn how to “debate” themselves, arguing both sides, and convince themselves that the thought isn’t right.
Break the fear into smaller pieces.
Kids are more likely to believe in a plan they helped make. But tackling a fear all at once can be overwhelming. Instead, try smaller steps toward reaching the goal of conquering a fear. And have your child help you come up with those smaller steps.
Maybe your child is afraid to do schoolwork in one room while you work in a different room with the door closed. Agree that by the end of next week, your child will do an hour of work away from you. Once you’ve set the goal, talk through the steps you’ll both take to reach it.
Here's an example. Do each step until your child feels OK with the step, and then move on to the next.
- You work with the door open and let your child check in with you every five minutes.
- Close the door in between check-ins.
- Move check-ins to every 10 to 15 minutes.
Continue like this until your child reaches the goal.
Cheer your child on.
Change takes time and doesn’t happen all at once. When your child faces a fear, let your child know how proud you are. Give encouragement, be patient, and praise your child’s efforts and successes. By sending the message that progress matters, you’re helping your child build a growth mindset and believe in the power of the word yet.