Kids and Fear: Helping Them Cope

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An interview with Michael Crowley, PhD

The spookiest day of the year is creeping-up, and with it comes a tricky mix of fun and fear for our kids. Real fear is so pronounced at this age, it can be hard to know what to do about it. Should we rush in and try to soothe the fear away? Or maybe step back and see if our kids can cope on their own? We turned to Michael Crowley, a child psychologist and researcher, to shed some light on the frights that haunt our little monsters. — Laurel Moglen, Managing Web Editor, TMC

Halloween is a time when some kids revel in “the scary.” What do kids gain out of intentionally freaking themselves out?

When kids intentionally freak themselves out, they are getting a thrill, much like riding a bike down a hill really fast. In walking the line between the real and the scary, many kids experience this as arousing and exciting. This is similar to, or the same as, taking a controlled risk — which is emotionally useful for young children to experience.

What are the emotional benefits?
There are several:
  • Facing the scary head on makes things generally less scary, especially because the child is experiencing the feelings in a controlled way. The scary suddenly becomes entertaining and fun.
  • Kids learn to distinguish between “pretend scary” and “real scary.”
  • Experiencing a range of feelings is good for emotional health because it teaches the child that feelings come and go, and a variety of feelings will take the place of another.

What’s the basic timeline of how fear generally manifests in 3-6 year olds?

There are many fears that fall into the range of developmentally “normal” at that age. The following are a few of the most commonly experienced:
  • Separation from parents: The child cries when left for daycare or grandparents.
  • Loud things: The child cries at storms, machines, loud noises
  • Strangers and animals: The child cries or hides or clings to parents when in the presence of these things.
  • The dark: The child finds the dark scary, or shadows scary, avoids the dark, and does feels comforted by a night light.
  • Discipline: Some children might get scared of a parent’s disapproving tone.
  • Nightmares: These can begin at around 2 years of age, but are more common from 3-6 years of age. They sometimes emerge from a stressful event.
Should parents act on their instinct to jump in and help?

In general, parents are hard-wired to help their children. When they see their children feeling anxious, scared, or both, parents rightly want to alleviate their kids’ distress. But, it’s advisable for parents to think before they act — to call upon their knowledge of their child and be sensitive to what action would best suit the need. There are times when it’s the right thing to hold back and let kids experience their discomfort, and of course there are other times when parents should be more involved. Depending on the child, a little stress or anxiety can be a perfect experience to help the child gain mastery and learn how to cope.

Here are some coping tips:

  • Encourage children to face their fears in small, manageable steps. For example, if a child has a fear of dogs, perhaps show them pictures of cute puppies to help integrate a positive image of dogs. Maybe read a book about dogs and their loyalty or how they can be trained to help the blind. Baby steps…
  • When your child faces their fears, give them praise! Get down on their level, make eye contact, and say, (for example), “You asked a new friend to play with you and had such a good time!”
  • Allow your child to take “safe” risks and to explore. Perhaps allow the child to go down a grocery aisle a little bit ahead of you by him/herself to bring something immediately back to you. Because you are in sight, they can always look back if they want.
  • Try NOT to help your child avoid their fears. Once in a while is o.k., but persistent avoidance can establish and sustain fearful behavior. When children or anyone avoids something that is distressing, this brings relief. In a basic way, it is actually rewarding. Think about all things in life that, when removed bring relief (e.g., a headache, an itch, and also distress). The problem is that avoidance can become an ingrained pattern that, once established, is difficult to overcome. In turn avoidance can leave children missing opportunities to grow and mature socially and otherwise. Families too are affected as routines are established that support avoidance.
  • Be sure that parents and caretakers are all working to help the child cope, in the same way. If one parent consistently allows avoidance while the other does not, fears are likely to persist. Consistency is key.
  • Talk about the past as not so bad. For example, a child was very scared to get shots at the doctor, and did it anyway. Say something like, “Hey, remember how well you did when you got the shot? It wasn’t a big deal. You did it. I’m proud of you.”
  • Model good reactions. For instance, if you scream when you see a spider, they will too. Try not to make a big deal about it. It’s fine to admit you don’t like spiders, but if you keep your reaction low-key, your child will be more likely to as well. Also sometimes parents worry out loud about this or that. Try not to. Kids hear and pick-up on everything. Your worries can become their internal dialogue.
  • Remain calm. Calmness is as contagious as fear. Getting upset or yelling can make a child’s fear or anxiety much more intense.
  • Keep in mind that most children, even shy and timid ones, will outgrow many of their fears and anxieties eventually. That said, the rates at which kids will outgrow them vary greatly.
And don’t forget: Fear and anxiety are really important feelings that prevent children from taking unnecessary risks (like running out into traffic to cross the street).
What are signs that a child’s fear or anxiety might be something more serious and beyond the abilities of a parent to help?
  • The child’s fear persists beyond what is developmentally appropriate. For example, a 5 year old child is too upset to separate from his parent to go to Kindergarten on a consistent basis and does not improve within a couple of weeks.
  • Fear and avoidance are present across a variety of situations or contexts. For example, a child is equally fearful at home, day care and school.
  • The child’s fear interferes with her ability to engage in daily routines and age appropriate activities.
  • Parents feel the need to organize their day around the child’s fears and this persists over weeks or months.
  • Trust your gut. If you as a parent have a sense that your child is not coping well, trust your intuition that something is not right.
If parents think their child’s fear or anxiety is beyond their ability to help, what to do next?

Seek out a clinician who specializes in young children and anxiety. Look for books on parenting the anxious child written by experts. There are great ones out there. Read more than one book so you can get lots of opinions to think about.

If a parent seeks out professional help, what should the parent expect from the clinician? What kind of therapy tends to work best?

With children under six you should expect some help with parenting. Parents usually spend more time with the child than anyone. They often set the situation and deliver the consequences and reactions. Much of what we discussed above will be covered in work with a clinician, though in greater detail. The clinician will try to understand where the fear and anxiety presents and what conditions might be unintentionally supporting the fear. They will help the parent develop a plan to reduce it.

Michael Crowley, PhD, is a Child Psychologist and Associate Director of the Developmental Electrophysiology Laboratory at the Yale Child Study Center. His research has a special emphasis on emotion regulation child anxiety and risk taking behaviors. He has three children.

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for young kids. Check out episodes of our “Ruby’s Studio” children’s video series, along with our beautiful children’s books, apps, music and more.

originally published October 9, 2014

Posted in: Expert Advice