There is a thin line that separates rational, requisite fear from irrational, debilitating fear. Read on to know how to help your child overcome her fears in an effective manner.
By Mina Dilip
As a psychologist, I have been fascinated by the primal emotion of fear. In my line of work, I have observed how fear takes many different forms, and leads to myriad different scenarios, many of them unpleasant. We all know that fear is an emotion felt by both children and adults. It is a primitive emotion that is coded into our DNA and is necessary for our survival. From prehistoric times, when our ancestors had to be on their guard for vicious attacks by wild predators in the jungle, all the way to the present day, when we need to be alert to the dangers of crossing a busy road, fear is what has kept us alive. Fear, therefore, is an important emotion.
Humans begin experiencing fear from an early age. Right from infancy through early childhood, all the way to adolescence, children feel this strong and sometimes incapacitating emotion, and often come to us, parents, for help. This article examines how you can assist your children in developing a healthy attitude towards fear and conquering this intimidating feeling to stay on top of it. This is not about eliminating fear, rather, about trying to understand, acknowledge and manage it effectively.
At every stage of your child’s life, there are bound to be fears. However, your child’s fears will evolve with age and change as she crosses each developmental milestone. Below is a list of common childhood fears and some simple strategies to handle them. The first letters of the list below join up to form the acronym “FEAR”.
A very young infant is often frightened by sudden movement, loud noises or large objects that loom in his line of sight. As a new parent, your baby’s startled reaction may seem overwhelming to you. However, babies normally adapt to common environmental sights, sounds and other sensory inputs as they grow up.
As your tiny tot grows up into a toddler, he is bound to feel apprehensive of strangers and of being separated from you.
It would help to develop a brief goodbye routine to let him know you will be gone for a while and that you will be back. He may cry for the first few days, but he will soon begin to understand that you will be back. Play games like peek-a-boo with your toddler. It enables your child to establish object permanence. In other words, your child will learn that even if parents go out of sight, they are sure to be back soon.
As your toddler grows into a primary schooler, she begins to develop an imagination. Pretend play and fantasising are common at this age. However, this can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, fantasising helps your little one gain a semblance of control over a big and overwhelming world through creativity and imagination. But, on the other hand, a fertile imagination can transform even benign objects into scary ghosts and monsters.
How to play
The preteen and teen years are fraught with worries, anxieties and fears. The most common fears of an adolescent include fear of rejection by peers, of ridicule over body image and of exams.
The need to be accepted by peers and to belong to the group of ‘popular’ children is a natural and normal part of adolescence. However, when there is peer pressure to engage in undesirable activities like drugs or sex, it can be very daunting for youngsters. In order to belong, children often end up doing things that they later regret.
Regardless of your child’s age, if she comes to you with her fears, it is important that you first reassure her that you are there to listen, and mean it. Listen without judgment or interruptions. When she has expressed her fear, validate it – don’t trash it! The worst thing to do would be to minimise her fears by saying, “Oh, that’s nothing to be afraid of.” Instead, soothe her by saying that it is natural for her to feel scared, and perhaps add that you would be scared too, had you been in her shoes. Having an empathetic and understanding attitude is so therapeutic and healing that your child may snap out of the fear right then. If not, you can assist her to explore alternatives to cope with the fear by asking her open-ended questions like, “Is there anything I can do to help?”
Fears and anxieties are a normal and natural part of growing up. Rather than trying to insulate your child from them, or invalidating her fears and anxieties, teach her to cope by equipping her with strategies to manage her fears with confidence.
Mina Dilip, Child Psychologist, Trainee Practitioner in Therapeutic Play Skills (PTUK)
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