Helping children come to terms with their fears, not avoid them

Parents often make mistakes when helping their children through their fears.

Parents often make mistakes when helping their children through their fears. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

One of the most common struggles that families come to see me about, is supporting children to work through their worries and fears.

I remember when my daughter was younger, she was petrified of dogs. The fear just seemed to turn up one day out of nowhere and quickly went from a big fear to a real phobia!

I started by unknowingly dismissing her feelings. I would say things like, “there’s nothing to be afraid of,” “you don’t have to feel scared, look how friendly it is,” “look how small the dog is, he should be more scared of you than you are of him”.

The fears just got bigger. She would absolutely panic if a dog was even in sight, no matter how far away It was, even if it was on a lead. Naturally, I just wanted to make it better for her and take that feeling away and again, I unknowingly made the second mistake of avoiding dogs.

I ended up almost doing a risk assessment wherever we went, constantly on guard, checking for dogs, trying to avoid them at all cost and soon her anxiety had transferred to me.

I wasn’t afraid of dogs myself, but deeply felt her feelings and took them on as my own. Mistake number three.

So many parents that come to see me have experienced exactly the same and when I explain why these three actions actually feed our children’s fears, it always makes so much sense.

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You can only ‘Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.' One of my favourite quotes by the late, great Maya Angelou.

Everything that I do comes from personal experience and sharing everything that I now know but wish that I knew then.

It's perfectly normal for children to feel afraid from time to time. Fear is an emotion that helps us to be cautious when we need to and stay safe.

Some common childhood worries and fears are; bugs and insects, the dark, being alone, someone they love becoming ill or dying, monsters, a stranger coming into the house, going to school, social situations, going to the doctor or dentist and so much more!

Feeling afraid is a natural and healthy part of childhood. It’s important to remember that we fear things or situations that make us feel unsafe or unsure. Whilst some children do unfortunately, sometimes face things that are truly frightening, the majority of childhood fears don’t represent an actual threat.

The more that children avoid the things that they find scary, the more scared of those
things they become.

When children avoid something they feel afraid of, for example a dog, we send a message to the brain and confirm that it is right and that dogs are a threat and scary. This increases the feeling each time they encounter a dog, as every time that part of the brain is activated it becomes more sensitive, which is its job, to alert us to danger.

Whatever we repeatedly feed ourselves, we will believe and become. Children have no opportunity to receive positive experiences with the feared situation, through avoidance coping strategies.

Instead, the positive, feel-good feelings, come when the child gets away from or avoids the dog. The huge sense of relief again reinforces the fear and children will naturally use avoidance as much as they can.

To stop this cycle of increasing fear, we need to help children to face their F.E.A.R.S:
Feel the feelings
Avoid Avoidance
Reframe thoughts
Small steps and self-care

We help make BIG feelings child size and support children to overcome their worries and
fears through introducing active coping strategies.

We start by talking through the feelings, thoughts and behaviours surrounding the stressor, present within ourselves and our children.

A big part of supporting your children is managing your own feelings and becoming their emotional coach. Get curious and really connect with the stressor and feel every feeling as it comes with acceptance and free from
judgement, then get curious about it.

Help your children to become a feelings detective and look for all of the clues together.

Empathise with your child’s feelings and your own, with kindness and compassion. It’s OK to feel every feeling and whatever we feel, for whatever reason, all of our feelings are always valid.

Avoid avoidance and instead, come up with an “I can plan” of things that your child can do, to help with their big feelings in the moment.

These may be holding your hand, playing with a fidget toy, cuddling a teddy, standing still until it passes, etc.

Reframe the negative and unhelpful thought patterns through positive affirmations, using “I am” and “I can” statements to empower your children.

Finally, we support children to feel able to start to face their fears and overcome them, taking small steps and always working at their own pace, having full control at all times.

Sometimes we have to help children to find strategies that make the steps easier, more fun or more manageable. Other times we need to make the steps even smaller. We always celebrate every step, every try and every part of the process, as much as the wins, no matter how big or small. 

The more often children have positive experiences surrounding whatever they feel afraid of and have healthy ways to manage their feelings, the smaller their feeling will become.