How to Help Children Overcome Their Fears
Children may have to deal with a wide range of fears, many of them developmental and age-specific, and others pathological. Furthermore, it can be extremely difficult for them to deal with really intense emotions. After all, it’s hard enough for adults. This is when, as a parent, you can provide them with certain tools to help them overcome their fears.
We often make the mistake of thinking that emotional education isn’t necessary. We assume that children will learn to deal with their fears with time and experience. However, in reality, they need support and sometimes psychological help so that potential sources of distress don’t end up causing them intense suffering.
Fear of the dark, storms, strangers, and accidents will probably resolve with age (although they can become chronic and pathological). That said, helping children deal with this emotion not only prevents them from experiencing great anguish, but also provides them with valuable learning that they can apply in different situations in the future.
How to help children overcome their fears
In the first place, when faced with a child’s fear, its nature should be determined. In fact, there are certain fears that tend to appear in specific stages of development. These are called evolutionary fears. Knowing about them won’t prevent them from appearing, but it’ll put us in better positions if we want to help.
There are also several strategies you can implement to help children overcome their fears, whatever they may be:
1. Take care of the content that they consume
Fear is a natural emotion that fulfills a function. It appears on multiple occasions in the life of a minor. However, some fears are closely related to the content that children consume in movies, series, or on social media. Monitoring this content is more important than you might think. They shouldn’t be exposed to images or ideas that aren’t suitable for their level of maturity.
Similarly, conversations with siblings, friends, and schoolmates can sometimes awaken these fears. For this reason, we recommend that you make an effort to maintain fluid and regular communication with your children. They’ll only tend to open up in an environment where they feel safe.
2. Explain and educate on emotions
Children, like adults, can feel overwhelmed when an intense emotion assails them. In these moments, understanding what’s happening increases their sense of control. For this reason, it’s necessary to explain to them what fear is, how it manifests itself, what situations easily generate it, and what they can do with it.
You must point out that fear can generate symptoms in the body (such as a racing heart), certain thoughts (such as “it’s going to be really difficult”), and specific behaviors (such as running away or trying to avoid it). Realizing this will help your child recognize their fear when it arises, put a name to it, and understand why it happens.
3. Allow them to feel and express themselves
It’s essential to offer them a safe space to express themselves. Nevertheless, as adults, we often downplay or even ridicule children’s fears. This means they stop sharing their fears with us since we’re not helping them.
On the contrary, minors need to face their fears knowing that their trusted people are by their side and that they have support. In this regard, sharing some of your own fears with your children can help them understand that it’s a normal emotion.
4. Give children an active role in overcoming their fears
This is a good time to encourage their autonomy, and thus help them increase their self-confidence. You can do this by offering them an active role in solving their fears.
Instead of directly telling them what to do, you should generate a conversation in which, with open questions, you encourage them to put into words what they’re feeling. The good thing about achieving this goal is that you can help them generate a story that helps them understand what’s happening to them.
For example, you might ask them”Why do you think you feel afraid at night?”, “What would make you feel safer?” or “What can you think of that we can do so that you sleep better?”.
5. Offer them coping models
This is one of the most important steps. That’s because much of children’s learning is vicarious. In other words, it’s produced by observing how other people deal with situations. As a parent, you’re their main reference and a great model in terms of coping styles, but they can also acquire these from other sources.
For example, you might read children’s stories that talk about your child’s fear, watch related movies, or recreate a scene through symbolic play. By identifying with the characters, they can internalize a series of thoughts and behaviors that’ll help them overcome their fears.
6. Practice self-affirmations
Self-statements are really helpful in that they address one of the main symptoms of fear: disturbing thoughts. Practicing them helps to actively transform the internal dialogue that feeds fear.
To do this, you can design, together with your child, some simple and positive phrases that you can repeat in the form of a mantra to give them encouragement and courage when facing a feared situation. For example, “I can do it” or “I’ll be fine.”
7. Train them in breathing techniques
Breathing techniques are really effective in controlling the physical symptoms of fear. These are simple exercises that your child can learn in a short time and put into practice whenever they need to calm down or face a fear.
8. Seek professional help
For certain situations, the guidelines we’ve shared here won’t be enough. In these cases, professional assistance will be necessary.
When fear causes great anguish, lasts longer than expected, or is extremely limiting for a child, it’s necessary, before applying any of these general strategies, to assess what’s happening. In fact, you should take into account that there might be a situation of harassment or abuse behind their fears. That’s because if you only act on their symptoms you might be turning off the signal that could warn you of what’s really happening.
All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.
- Friedman, A. G. & Ollendick, T. H. (1989). Treatment programs for se-vere night-time fears: a methodological note, Journal Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 20 (2), 171-178
- Kendall, P. C., & Hedtke, K. A. (2006). Cognitive-behavioral therapy for anxious children: Therapist manual. Workbook Publishing.
- Podell, J. L., Mychailyszyn, M., Edmunds, J., Puleo, C. M., & Kendall, P. C. (2010). The Coping Cat Program for anxious youth: The FEAR plan comes to life. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 17(2), 132-141.