Fears are a normal and healthy part of growing up. Fears and worries will also vary and change depending on the age and development of your child. (eg. It is normal for younger children to be frightened of big dogs and for older kids to be worried about what their peers think of them).
Fears and worries can, however, become a problem when they become too extreme, cause distress to the child and his/her family and begin to interfere with normal, everyday school or family life (eg. if your child is missing out on sleep and is not performing at school because they are frightened of ‘things’ in the night; If your child wont go outside to play because they are too afraid to be away from you). This is when fears can become a problem and cause upset for a child and family. This is when it may be time to seek professional advice and support.
What causes Anxiety in Children?
It is very likely that several factors contribute towards anxiety in children. These may include:
• Stressful life situations: (eg. your home being burgled; parental separation; seeing something on the news; a very scary movie!)
• Modeling: (eg. your child saw you panic and become upset when you saw a spider on the wall). Your child then copies this next time!
• Reaction/response to anxiety: Often in our attempts to comfort a worried child this can accidentally reward the anxious behaviour (“It’s OK, I will stay here with you until you are asleep” teaches “it feels safe quickly with your help”). In the long term, however, this does not encourage a child to face up to learning how to build confidence and cope with the feared situation.
• Avoidance: Staying away from the worry keeps it strong and powerful! It can reinforce the idea that “this is too hard and frightening to deal with, I can’t cope”.
• Genetics: It’s true! Research has clearly indicated that if someone in your family is anxious then your child is also likely to have inherited that more emotionally sensitive ‘wiring’.
What can I do to help my child?
There are many things that you can do to help your child to overcome their fears and worries and to build long-term confidence. Some starting ideas are listed below:
1. Listen to your child or ask them to draw a picture or write a list of their fears. (Do this during the daytime only – when brains are awake more likely to be calm and rational!)
2. Be a confident role model and calmly reassure them that you believe they can cope with their worry.
3. Address safety issues with common sense, in a matter-of-fact fashion (eg. lock the front door at night and then leave the door alone!)
4. Help your child to make up their own confident sentences that they can say to themselves when they feel scared (eg. “I feel safe and happy and I am OK!”)
Anxiety is a common and very treatable condition in both adults and children. They key is to find a gentle balance of confronting a fear (with supportive strategies), without force, but also without avoidance. Sometimes this can be tricky!
If you find that your child’s fear is not improving then it may be beneficial to seek some outside professional support from a registered psychologist with experience in this area.