Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Manage Fears
All children are born with an inbuilt safety feature which, for the most part, is a good preventative mechanism from certain dangerous behaviours. Adults and children alike may continue to fear certain things that are outside their experiences but are evolutionary in nature. Perhaps it may be a fear of snakes and although they have never had an experience with a slippery creature, their brains are wired as a warning feature.
Your child’s “anxiety landscape” will change as they grow from infants, toddlers, preschoolers and on to school going age groups. Some children who have experienced an intense trauma of some kind may develop anxiety disorders and in these cases should be seen by your pediatrician who will probably refer you to a specialist. But for most children, their fears are a predictable rite of passage.
Here are just a few examples of fears they may develop:
Fear of strangers
Fear of monsters under the bed or in the closet
Snakes and spiders
Fear of dogs or cats
Storms ,earthquakes, lightening or hurricanes and tornadoes
Noises in the home and intruders
Fear of swimming or riding a bicycle
Scary news or TV shows
Fear of elevators, dark spaces like movie houses
Injury, illness, doctors, dentists, shots, or death
Fear of making new friends
Fear of failure and rejection
Fear of a teacher who's angry
Helping children to calm down by gently talking to them and asking questions about their fears and honestly explaining with confidence is always helpful. As children grow they should mature through these fears with gentle, kind support from their parents. Help your child talk about what’s frightening him. Kids may know what they’re scared of, but they don’t always have the words to explain. Asking specific questions can help. For example if a child is afraid of dogs you could say, “What makes dogs scary?” “Did a dog surprise you or knock you over?” “Is there a certain dog you’re afraid of?” Once you have a better grasp on what your child is afraid of you’ll have a clearer idea of how to help her work through it. Talking to their caregivers and daycare providers so that they can also be aware and help to continue working through the particular fear that has come up.
Helping them to learn to calm down on their own as they mature is key though. Eventually, teaching your children to manage their fears and calm themselves down will help them to build confidence and become more independent.
So how do we help kids start feeling braver? The key is an invisible skill called self-regulation. Self-regulating is essentially the ability to process and manage our own emotions and behaviors in a healthy way. It’s what gives us the ability to talk ourselves down or to feel things without acting on them. Most grown-ups practice self-regulation without a second thought. Think of feeling a moment of fear before reassuring yourself that there’s really nothing scary about a dark room. But for kids, building self-regulation takes time, practice and space to learn — which means parents have to get comfortable with letting kids be a little uncomfortable as they figure things out.
Don’t fear fears
“Being afraid sometimes is a normal, healthy part of growing up,” says Elianna Platt, a social worker at the Child Mind Institute. And, while kids do unfortunately sometimes face things that are truly frightening, most garden-variety childhood fears don’t represent an actual threat — the “monster” in the closet is just an old coat you’ve been meaning to donate — which means they actually present an ideal chance for kids to work on their self-regulation skills. But for that to happen, parents often have to address their own anxiety first.
“We want to give kids the chance to practice getting through difficult situations,” says Platt, “but for a lot of parents, that’s easier said than done.” When you see your child in distress the natural response is to want to make it better, especially if the fix seems like an easy one. But, though jumping in might help your child be less afraid in the moment (and feel better to you), in the long run it can make it more difficult for her to learn how to calm herself down. “If kids get the message that Mom or Dad will always be there to do the comforting, there isn’t much incentive, or opportunity, to learn how to do it themselves,” notes Platt.
Validate, then move on. Once you know what the fear is, let your child know you’re taking it, and him, seriously. “When a kid says something’s scary, there’s a pretty good chance that we as adults don’t think it’s scary,” says Dr. Busman of the Child Mind Institute. “But we always want to start by validating their feelings.” For example, instead of “Oh come on, that wasn’t scary!” or “What is there to be afraid of?” try, “Wow, that does sound scary!” or, “I know a lot of kids worry about that.”
Once you’ve offered reassurance it’s important to move on quickly, says Dr. Busman. ”We don’t want to dwell on offering comfort around the scary thing, because even that can become reinforcing and take on a life of its own.” Instead, start talking about how you’ll work together to help him start feeling braver and get to the point where he’s able to manage the fear by himself.
Make a plan. Work with your child to set reasonable goals. For example, if she usually needs you to sit in the room with her until she falls asleep, you could agree that by the end of the week she’ll try turning off the light and falling asleep on her own. Once you’ve set the goal, talk through the steps you’ll take to reach it.
Offer encouragement, and be patient. Finally, parents should remember that change takes time, and fear is a very powerful feeling. Stay consistent and praise your child’s hard work: “I thought it was really brave of you to stay in your room for half an hour. Let’s see if we can go longer tomorrow!”
Let your child know you think he can tackle his fears, even if he isn’t so sure yet. “Saying things like, “You’ve got this!” or, “You’re being so brave!” can help your child feel more confident,” says Dr. Busman. Kids, especially younger ones, may need a few tries before things stick, so don’t give up if your child is still asking for that third glass of water or hiding from dogs on the street even after you’ve started working on building bravery.
If you feel your child’s fears are escalating and are causing anxiety and tantrums, it’s always a good idea to check in with your Pediatrician for advise.
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