Fear in children and how to help your child manage fear
Fear is an unlikeable feeling caused by the threat or risk of danger of harm to body or life. Fear is a necessary feeling of response to any danger. It is important to feel it, to protect ourselves from real danger or real threats. When you are afraid, you react as if your life is in danger. It is when your start breathing fast, your heart rate increases and your muscles are tensed up. This is when your brain initiates the ‘fight-or-hide’ response, which is vital to anyone’s survival. The response of fear mostly is autonomic. We have no control on its trigger; we never realize, what is going on until we are already afraid. Being a parent, you should help your child manage fear.
Fear is divided into two parts, which is rational and irrational. Rational fear is a fear of a real danger. It is vital for our survival. It triggers when you are sure that by doing it, can cause death or severe injury. For example, standing on the tracks of a speedy train coming towards you.
Irrational fear is fear of harmless things; it cannot cause death, injury or illness. Irrational fear situations are far from any threat. The most common example of an irrational fear is the fear of dark. Extreme display of irrational fear is called a phobia. All the problem starts when fears turns into phobias.
Having rational fear can be helpful to children as it helps in keeping them safe. For example, a child with a fear of height would avoid playing on the edges of the bed. When your child surrenders to irrational fears, then there is a problem. Such fears can cause many problems in their academic and social life. Irrational fears may also grow into phobia with age. Children are very vulnerable to irrational fear, because of their hyperactive imagination. They may start fearing the imaginative creatures like ghosts & monsters, or fear the unlikely disasters. Traumas or bad experiences can trigger irrational fear among children.
Cause of fear in children
Everyone experience fears during childhood, such as fear of the dark and strangers, these fears are temporary and harmless. Children often learn to fear a specific thing or situation after having an unpleasant experience, such as an accident or a dog bite. Studies show that such experiences can cause fear, phobia, chronic anxiety and prolonged activation of the ‘body’s stress response system’ in children.
Repeated or unending occurrence of circumstances like physical, sexual, or emotional abuse of children or of one parent by the other, can bring out fears which have adverse long-term effects on children from which they do not recover easily. Children with fear of being rejected can fail to develop social skills, causing social desertion.
Signs of fear
It’s essential for parents to identify the signs of children’s fear so that it doesn’t disrupt their everyday life. Parents can usually tell when their child is feeling excessively uneasy about something. Look out for the signs below.
- Accelerated heart rate and breathing.
- Running and hiding.
- Nervous movements like temporary trembling.
- Sleeping a lot.
- Being clingy, reckless, or unfocused.
- Perspiration & sweaty hands.
- Troubled sleep or frequent nightmares
- Thumb sucking.
- Unusual quietness, unresponsiveness, or tiredness.
- Unusual agitation or aggression.
Your goal should be to identify the signs early before they blow out of proportion and become full-fledged fears or phobias.
Effects of fear on children’s brain and physical development.
Effects on the Brain.
Fear damages parts of brain like hippocampus and damages brain’s processes that help children to control emotions. It can harm creation of long-term memories, thinking and decision-making development in children, leaving them vulnerable to extreme emotions and rash reactions. A child with long-term and unattended extreme-fear may develop fatigue, clinical depression, and even PTSD(Post traumatic stress disorder).
When fear starts damaging brain, it becomes more difficult to control it. A child starts being fearful all the time, and they are scared of everything around them.
Effects on the Body.
Fear creates physical problems like ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, and damage fertility. It can also cause heart problems and weaken the immune system.
How to help your child manage fear.
Everyone experiences fears, whether its children or adults, at one time or another in life. Fearing something which is not dangerous in reality, is very uncomfortable feeling for children themselves and others around them. Parents should help their children manage their fears rather than leaving it to time. Dealing with fear will not only eradicate them from your children’s life but will prepare your children to handle the troubling experiences and difficult situations of life. Read ahead to know how to help your child manage fear.
Expose children to feared situations or places:
The most important step in helping your children manage their irrational fears is to make them face or expose them to feared situations or places. Children will always want to avoid the things they fear, but this prevents them from learning that what they fear is not actually dangerous. This process includes soft exposure of children to their feared situations or places with proper plan and steps until they are no more feared by it.
According to many research, such exposures are not dangerous by nature, they are actually done to make children realize that their fears are not real and such exposures will not make the fear worse. However, do not force your child to do something that he or she is scared of, do it very cautiously. For example, walk with your child through the place that your child is scared of going. Roam around, look under the bed; say that there is nothing there. If your child is afraid of dogs, show him/her the loving and loyal side of them.
Start with situations that are less scary, let the children work their way up to facing things that they fear. With time, they will start feeling confident in those situations naturally. For example, children not knowing how to ride a bike will fear it, but with practice, they can learn and fight the fear, same goes for swimming, skating etc.
Monitor what your child is watching on TV and other media:
Scary visuals from video games, movies, Internet, and news channels can start fears in your children. A young child cannot differentiate between reality and fantasy. So monitor what your child is watching especially before bedtime. Teach your children what to watch, like comedies and things that are more relaxing and fear reducing. When you feel your children are anxious play a comedy movie and watch with them.
Have a conversation about it:
Having a conversation and lending your support will help your child feel safe. Words have power; sometimes just talking about it or lending a sympathetic ear can help children fight it. When your child is facing a fear parents should comfort them by saying, “It will be okay, I am here with you.” Ask them to explain what is it that they are scared of and why? Let them explain how they feel. Such conversation can make children feel secure. Fears often grow with negative self-talk. Children can use your positive statements to fight their negative fear. Children may ask same question repeatedly, they use the repetition of information as a source of comfort. Be patient and consistent while you answer.
Be a role model:
Do not show your fears in front of your children. Also, never let your child know about insecurities like having less money, being called as poor and having dark skin complexion etc. Children copy how parents cope with their fears. So set an example and show them how you cope with your fears. Be strong yourself, especially during the time of a tragedy or after a trauma.
Do not make fun of it:
Making fun of your children’s fear will not make it go away; on the contrary, it will increase their fear level (developing phobias) and decrease the self-esteem in them. Don’t say things like “Stop being a pussy” or “See, no one else is scared”, etc. Ignoring your children’s fear and making fun if it will only develop negative feelings in them.
Teach calm breathing:
Fear can make your children tensed up and learning relaxation techniques such as calm breathing can help. Read full article on calm breathing (here)
Utilise your children’s imagination:
Children have amazing imagination and parents should use this vivid imagination to help children manage their fear. If your children fear monster under the bed, use pillow and toy swords and fight the monster out with the help of children. You can give your children some religious sign to keep under the bed to keep the monster away forever. This will instil the idea of victory of good over evil in them.
If your children fear bad dreams, ask them to imagine the dream that they actually want to have, before sleeping. Soldiers who are suffering from stress also use this technique.
Give children the sense of security:
The sense of security is among the most important things parents can provide for children. It is important to reassure children that they are loved, cared, and protected, especially if they have experienced a traumatic event. So reassure your children that you are there to protect them. Hugging, patting the back or just sitting close to them while reading a book can help in restoring the sense of security in children. Children should be reminded repeatedly that above all they are safe and loved.
Say no to physical punishment:
Children memories should be joyful and pleasant, which should not be scared with physical punishment. When they are adults, they are more likely to remember painful memories than the pleasant ones, memories of physical abuse blocks the happy memories. Hitting, slapping, beating, etc. leaves negative impacts on the subconscious mind of children, its effects are felt throughout the life. Every time the negative memory is triggered, it will leave your child more fearful, angry, filled with hatred and low self-esteem. Parents may think that physical punishment is good to make the child afraid to repeat the misbehaviour, but it is more likely to make the child fear the one who is hitting. Once the child starts fearing his/her own parents, he or she will start lying, giving excuses and hiding things. Our responsibility as parents is to fill our children’s memory bank with thousands of pleasant events instead of traumatic ones.
Don’t add to your child’s fears:
In many cases, parents are themselves responsible for many of their children’s fears. For example, when your child is not eating food, you would say “eat your food, or I’ll take you to doctor and he will give you injection.” This will make your child scared of injection and will resist having them even in needed clinical situations. If your child is afraid of dogs, don’t cross the street intentionally to avoid dogs, this will make your child think that dogs should be feared and avoided and will validate your child’s fear of dogs.
Be patient and let your children do anything they want until they cross the line of danger, do not immediately stop them or show the harmful side of it.
Reward brave behaviour:
When your children starts facing fears, it will help them more if reward them for brave behaviour. Children respond well to praise and encouragement. It is better to plan in advance what rewards you will give on your child’s brave behaviour and you have to be consistent in using them.
Give them your time:
Giving children your time helps them overcome fear, especially when they are terrified. Parent have to display their comforting and confident side to the children. Make them realise that they are safe in your arms and all is well. Be convincing in this process and you will be surprised to see how fast the fear melts. The longer you play and make them laugh, the bolder your children will become. Play a proper game and spend genuine time for that laughter, just ticking your children will not help.
Parents should start seeing things from a child’s perspective. The key to resolving fears is to overcome them and children would need their parents support to overcome them.