Shoo Away Fear

In this part of our ‘Management Series’, we look at how you can help your child break free from the shackles of fear.

By Dr Priscilla J S Selvaraj

Shoo Away Fear


Who, among us, can honestly state that we have never been afraid of anything? At some point or the other in our lives, we have always feared something. For some of us, it might be that pesky, creepy, crawly, hairy eight-legged creature of the Arachnid family who chooses just that moment we pass by to make a neat landing on our shoulder. For others, it might be the scaly, monstrous, gigantic Tyrannosaurus which threatens to pop out of the television screen and make a meal out of us. Though some may enjoy the occasional flirtation with fear by watching horror movies or reading thrillers, there is no denying that fear is one emotion that completely overwhelms us all. So, what is it about fear that it has such a firm grip on us?

What is fear?

The American Psychological Association’s Glossary of Psychological Terms defines fear as, ‘a rational reaction to an objectively identified external danger that may induce a person to flee or attack in self-defense.’

This implies that fear is a vital response to threat or danger. "If so, isn't it alright to be afraid?" you may ask. Well, we should understand that fear is an emotion that encompasses a whole gamut of feelings, beginning from the simplest form of anxiety to the most complex form of phobia. While one response may be rational, the other may be an irrational reaction; while one may be a survival instinct, the other may end up being a threat to our very survival; and, while one may be a reaction to a real threat, the other may be a reaction to a perceived threat. So, to ensure that we do not allow ourselves to be enveloped by fear, it is essential to learn how to manage it.

Children and fear

It is absolutely essential that children learn to tame this shrew called fear; for, it is very common among them. Research has shown that 90% of children experience fear at some point during their childhood. This emotion may differ in type and intensity from child to child. Most parents find it difficult to help their children cope with this unpleasant feeling. Here is an instance:

The case of ‘scaredy-cat’

Anna was the oldest of six siblings. She was always pleasant and cheerful. She was also a very responsible and dutiful child. Despite these positive traits, she was gripped with ‘fear’. Anna was afraid of so many things – loud noise, cows, bearded men, grey-haired people, traffic, bossy and authoritative persons, lizards, snakes, cockroaches… the list was endless. One of her siblings had christened her ‘scaredy-cat’ and the name had stuck to her. Almost everyone started teasing her by her nick-name. As for her parents, they didn’t do much to help her out of her fears. Anna grew up into adulthood to be what she was labelled – a ‘scaredy-cat’.

Parents should realise that children need help to face their fears and conquer them. Most importantly, parents need to identify the signs of fear in their children. Here are some common symptoms of fear:

How to identify fear in children

  • Sweaty palms
  • Clinging on to the parent
  • Nervous, twitchy, fidgety movements
  • Quivering lips
  • Stubborn refusal to do something or go somewhere
  • Excessive crying
  • Stiffening
  • Rapid breathing
  • Complaints of nightmares
  • Difficulty sleeping

What children usually fear

Different children fear different things. Also, the cause of fear may vary depending on the age of the child. Here’s a list of the most common fears.

  • Animals / reptiles / insects
  • The dark
  • Bogeyman / monsters / ghosts
  • Separation from parents
  • Loneliness
  • Illness
  • Pain
  • Loud explosive noise
  • Firecrackers
  • Elevators
  • Doctors, nurses, injections
  • Strangers
  • Bullies
  • Thieves / kidnappers
  • Thunder & lightning
  • Heights
  • Exams
  • Specific subjects
  • Performance on stage
  • Those in authority
  • Failure
  • Death / dying
  • Nightmares
  • Rebuke and criticism
  • Physical harm / personal safety
  • The unknown

How parents can help

Accept their fear: Do not mock or tease your children about their fear. On the contrary, accept the fact that they fear something and empathise with them. This alone will help you find solutions to make them overcome it.

Talk about it: Encourage children to share their fears with you, older siblings or friends. They can even talk about their fears to their pets or toys. Expressing their fears is therapeutic and offers relief to them.

Expose them to it: Do not over-protect children by keeping them completely away from their object of fear. Introduce it to them in small doses. This will help them face their fear boldly. However, take care not to forcibly make them confront their fear.

Build confidence: Teach children that fear is a good thing, in certain cases. They need to realise that it is a normal emotion and a part of their survival instinct. This will boost their confidence.

Limit and screen media views: Often, it has been found that horror and violence portrayed in visual media prove to be major causes of fear in children. So, take care to limit and screen such views.

Offer reassurance: Children need to feel secure and safe. Your reassurance, by way of comforting words and hugs will certainly help them handle their fears better.

Make fear become fun: This could be the best possible approach to tackling fear. Have family games with the lights off (of course, ensuring safety), get children to draw cartoons of what they fear – such activities can turn their fear into fun.

Overcome your own fears: If you are unable to manage your own fears, your endeavours in helping your children conquer their fears will be unsuccessful. Therefore, learn to get rid of your fears first.

In a nutshell, use measures that will help your children vanquish their fears. Let Nelson Mandela’s words echo through every step of their lives – “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”