Last weekend my daughters and I were at a family reunion. There was a dog there, a small, yippy pup that was well intentioned but terrified my daughters nonetheless. At one point she sprinted up from behind them and took them by surprise. They both burst into tears. My husband and I ran to the girls, each of us picking up one.
One of my cousins approached me as I held my crying toddler. “Aren’t you just going to reinforce her fears by responding that way?” It was an honest question from a man who had never had children. I struggled to find my words as I tried to soothe my baby. “Well, um, it’s not like that. I’m not going to be able to solve her fears right now. She needs to know she’s safe.”
It can be hard to know how to address our children’s fears, especially the ones that get in the way of their functioning. I am less concerned about my daughters’ fear of dogs; we don’t have a dog, and they rarely see them. But my older daughter has developed an intense fear of bugs, one that results in almost daily battles over her desire to wear pants (which keep the bugs away) in 90-degree weather. We’re still figuring out how to deal with it, but here are some ideas that I keep coming back to:
1. Remember that childhood fears are normal. The world is awfully big for little kids, and there is much they don’t know about how things work, what is real, and what isn’t. These fears don’t meant that there is anything wrong with your child, or they’re going to grow up to be an anxious wreck. They’re a normal part of the developmental process.
2. Take their fears seriously. As ridiculous as some of them may seem (am I going to get flushed down the toilet?), they’re not ridiculous to your child. Let them know that you are taking them seriously by listening to them, acknowledging what they are saying, and sharing times when you were, or still are, scared.
3. Let them talk about, read about, and play out their fears. Don’t shut your child down or tell them they’re being ridiculous. Children learn to master their fears by talking through them, reading books about them, and engaging in imaginary play. When my daughter was getting ready to transition from her crib to her bed, I noticed a lot of play with dolls who were taking turns sleeping in different boxes, toy cribs, and various little mats. Although her play made me anxious about her fear about the transition, I tried to let it happen. It was all part of her process.
4. Help your child feel powerful. Pretend you’re the monster, and let them win the tickle war over the monster. If they’re scared of the dark, give them a flashlight or a nightlight. Fill a spray bottle with water, and label it “monster spray.” Let them close the closet door at night. When we headed out to a grassy outdoor area where I knew there would be bugs, I gave my daughter some bug spray.
5. Encourage your children when they are brave. Don’t forget to encourage your children when they take risks and face their fears. They need to know that you see them and appreciate how hard they are working to be strong.
6. Slow things down, and go back to what is known and predictable. Children may focus on seemingly irrational fears when they don’t have the words for their bigger fears and worries. If your child’s fears of monsters or the dark or dogs seem worse than usual, look at what else is going on in their lives. Where can you slow things down, clear up some space in a busy schedule, and just find time to stay at home and reconnect with your child?
7. Remember, this too shall pass. Don’t let your own anxiety intensify their worries. The vast majority of childhood fears do pass, and our job as parents is to stay calm whenever possible so we can be a source of safety and support for our children in the harder moments.
8. When in doubt, reconnect. A safe, healthy connection is fundamental to any kind of change, whether you’re talking about children or adults. When you feel like you’ve tried every trick or tip in the book and nothing is working, close the book and go find your kid. In almost every situation, it’s the best thing you can do for yourself and your child.