Childhood Fears

Almost all children have fears. Some of these fears are reasonable and some are completely irrational. When I see my 2-year-old standing next to a 120 pound dog, I conclude that it would be reasonable for him, weighing in at about 30 pounds, to be afraid of that dog. But when my 4-year-old talked about his fear of the “invisible bears” that come in his room through his bookshelf at night, that seemed a bit less reasonable.

Here are a few common fears that your children may deal with – the dark, thunder, strangers, death, animals, monsters, doctors, dentists, parents not coming home, going somewhere without mom or dad, and getting hurt.

How do we help our children to overcome their fears? Typically the most successful way of overcoming a fear is through small steps that allow the child to safely make progress and gradually learn a new way of thinking about the object of their fear. Here are a few more thoughts about helping children overcome fears.

Start with a foundation of support and love. Listen to their fears and their reasons for their fears. Resist any temptation to belittle or dismiss their fears because they may seem trivial to you. After all, if you are honest with yourself, you probably have some irrational fears yourself. If someone told you to just stop worrying because your fear doesn’t make sense, I’m confident that would not solve your problem. We need to begin by listening to our children to understand their fears in a way that allows them to feel respected and validated.

When I was in college, I did a high ropes challenge: climb a ladder, climb up a pole, then complete an obstacle course about 25 feet in the air. We were each challenged to set a goal. I remember one participant set a goal of simply climbing 5 steps up the ladder. She had a fear of heights and she viewed 5 steps up as successful high ropes experience for her.

The facilitator of that ropes course understood that we typically overcome fears a little at a time. For that young woman climbing 5 steps up the ladder was a step toward her getting used to heights and overcoming her fear.

We often want to help our children to overcome their fears by forcing them to go up the ladder, up the pole, and all the way across the obstacle course. If your son is afraid of dogs, you may think the answer is to get him in a room with a dog and let him see how great it is. Often, however, you will find more success with a gradual process. For example, start by watching a dog from a distance. Then get close to the dog. Next walk right by a dog. Next pet a dog. Then let a dog lick you. Sometimes it helps to make a list of the small steps and check them off as you go, but other times that is not necessary. The key is to celebrate each small step as a success.

With my son’s fear of “invisible bears” its obvious that I can’t physically expose him to the invisible bears. However, I have found that I can expose him to the invisible bears by talking about them. I made up stories about the invisible bears in which the bears are fun and crazy. I told him that I hope the bears come because I want to play with them. I warned him that the bears love cheese and I did not want to find him and the bears sitting in the kitchen eating cheese in the middle of the night! Instead of belittling his fear of the bears or simply trying to convince him they don’t exist, I treated the bears as the story-like figures they are and put them in a positive light.

Most of us are busy and we don’t want our children held back by their fears, so we would like our children to instantly overcome their fears. In reality, children (and adults) typically overcome fears  gradually as they are safely exposed to whatever it is making them afraid. Come up with some small steps that will help your child to make progress in one fear that they are currently dealing with. And you may find that when they start making progress in overcoming one fear, this will give them confidence and less fear in other areas of their life.

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