Helping children to overcome fears

By Matthew Toale

Almost every person on the planet has something that they are afraid of. Some people can be afraid of a variety of objects or situations, whilst others have a small niche of fears that plagues them. However, there is usually at least one thing that a person has a deep-rooted fear of that goes above and beyond all their other fears, something that absolutely terrifies a person, even if the thing they are afraid of is completely harmless. More often than not, most deep-rooted fears are acquired from the early childhood of a person. I have asked quite a few adults about what scares them the most and how they came to be scared of said fears. Most of their answers all began with “Well when I was little,” or something along those lines. Apparently, it can only take a few seconds for the seeds of fear to be planted in a child’s mind, because when asked, most people said that their parents were quickly alerted to the fact that they were frightened and would rush to them. However, the fear is there and there it may stay forever, unless it can be conquered early on – and no child is likely to be able to do that on their own.

Is fear good, bad or dangerous?

No child should be afraid and sometimes this can be difficult to avoid when trying to teach a child about caution, which is vital to their upbringing. The problem can sometimes be that when a parent is trying to teach their child what not to do for their own safety it can be taken the wrong way. Something as simple as telling a child not to talk to strangers could be taken the wrong way by a child. When a parent is asked that constant question of “why?” from their child, their answer is a vital part of how a child will react. Naturally, a parent doesn’t want their child to wander off and talk to strangers; however they also don’t want their child to be terrified every time they walk past a pedestrian. When you’re trying to teach a child about caution it’s important that you explain things carefully so that they understand and the answer doesn’t create an extreme fear. A parent must know that their influence is extremely profound, and if done explained the right way, the child will know the difference between fear and caution.

Aside from not wanting a child to be afraid, fear can be dangerous for a child. My younger brother was jumped on a by dog when he was five. The dog was only playing, however my brother mistook this as the dog attacking him. This event has left a massive fear of dogs within him. He is nine now and still won’t go near one if it can be avoided, and will burst into tears and screams if one gets too close. Now, this may not sound too bad in hindsight, as a lot of people don’t like dogs or other animals. However, it’s a fact that on some occasions, this fear has put his life in danger. On one occasion he was riding his bike when a dog walker came round the corner. Despite being on a main road he swerved his bike into the road to avoid it. Thankfully I was close enough and quick enough to grab both he and the bike out of the road – only just in time. On another occasion, he almost threw himself and our mother into a canal when trying to avoid a large group of dogs coming his way. This is why fear for a child can be extremely dangerous; children are more prone to panic and do not have the ability to rationalise things the way an adult can (and often, even adults fail to do this). This is why it’s extremely important for parents to try and negate their child’s fears as much as possible.

How can a parent cure their child of fear?

There is no sure way to cure fear unfortunately. Some fears are more deep-rooted than others, and can be more difficult to overcome. However, there are some methods that parents can use to help their child cope with fear.

First of all, a parent should try to analyse their child’s fear – find out exactly what it is they are afraid of, as it may not be as simple as you would think. Once again using my brother as an example, his fear seems pretty straightforward, he’s afraid of dogs, right? Yes absolutely. Does he fear everything about dogs? No, he doesn’t. I found out fairly recently that his fear is quite specific. He is quite happy to pet a dog that is in its owner’s arms or a dog that is poking his head out of a car window. That in itself tells me a lot about his fear, he is not afraid of being bitten by a dog; he is only scared of one jumping up and knocking him over. That is exactly what happened to him when he was younger, the dog that jumped on him was only playing, it did not bite or scratch or do anything aggressive, but in its enthusiasm it jumped up and knocked him over. In a situation where dogs cannot physically do this, he is not scared of them. This is a hugely beneficial in helping him get over his fear. If he were afraid of anything and everything to do with dogs it would be more difficult, but as it is only this one aspect, it is much easier to help him with. Knowledge is power, and the more knowledgeable a parent is about their child’s fear, the more power they have to help them get over it.

The simplest method a parent can use to help their child to get over their fear is to sit down with them and carefully explain why they should not be afraid. Most parents would probably do this anyway, however, during the conversation the parent should take everything the child says – their questions and their responses – and use it to understand their fear better. Even if talking to them doesn’t work, they might say something that might give the parent an idea of what will work. For some children, words will not be enough to cure them of their fear, however the power a parent has to influence their child shouldn’t be underestimated, and this alone may be enough to help the child get over their fear.

Facing fears

The next method I would suggest is for a parent to try and help their child face their fear. Help being the operative word – it goes without saying that no child should be forced to face fear as that’s more likely to do more harm than good. However, if a they are put a position where the thing they afraid of is not sprung on them out of the blue, but introduced to them slowly, in a situation where they are in control and have the comfort of having mum or dad at their side facing it with them, this can have a tremendously positive effect on helping them to get over their fear.

Part of this is desensitising your child to fear, and this can take a long time to achieve. When I researched how to help a child get over a fear of dogs, the thing that seemed to achieve the most constant and positive results, was putting a child in a situation where they are in constant contact with a dog. But they would be in a situation where the child is in control and can leave the space or have the dog leave the space when they become uncomfortable. The more often this happens the more desensitised the child becomes until their fear is all but gone. Helping the child face their fear can be a long and difficult process and even this does not guarantee they will get over their fear, although the chances are it will help them cope with it better. It will take a lot of time and effort on the parent’s part however, if successful, it would enable their child to get over something that would likely otherwise have a negative impact on their lives. Both as a child and as an adult.

There are a number of websites which offer help and guidance on helping children to overcome their fears:

Women and Children’s Health Network: http://www.cyh.com

Child Anxiety Network: http://www.childanxiety.net

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