A fear of heights is a common fright in people of all ages, and is a natural extension of our normal instincts that steer us away from danger. However, some children may take this anxiety to the extreme. Here are a few things you can do to reduce these fears and make them easier to manage:
Dealing with a child’s fear of heights
- If you know a child to be dreadfully fearful of heights, avoid situations that leave them terrified. Don’t make them go to the edge of a platform and look down if they aren’t ready, and give them extra time to prepare themselves before confronting a frightful situation.
- Don’t pick them up (which puts them even higher and provides a vantage point that may increase anxiety), but instead get down on their level and hold them around the waist to make them feel secure.
- If they get in a situation where panic is setting in, have them look into your eyes as you stare back at theirs. You might also have them repeat a comfort phrase such as “I am safe.” This exercise will help calm their fears.
Helping children overcome a fear of heights
- Help them learn to interpret these scary feelings as a signal. It’s like a warning bell in their head, telling them to be cautious because they might be in danger. But explain that sometimes this signal goes off when it isn’t necessary and there’s nothing to be afraid of, sort of like a false alarm. Then tell them that whenever this alarm goes off and they feel scared, they should ask themselves whether this warning is a sign of legitimate danger. If they’re on a stable platform or otherwise have no risk of actually falling, they should tell this warning bell to pipe down.
- Sometimes a fear of heights is intertwined with feelings of vertigo, which a child might feel whenever standing somewhere up high. You can help children grow accustomed to these sensations by having them stand on a stool, close their eyes, and tilt their head back (with you spotting them for safety). It’s also a trust exercise that may help with their fears.
- As with many other fears, a tolerance for heights is generally built up using exposure therapy. Find ways you can slowly expose them to situations that stretch their comfort zone. Here are some suggestions, listed in order from the ones that are generally the least anxiety provoking to the most:
- Viewing scenic heights (such as in the mountains, on stable footing but overlooking valleys and other lower areas)
- Swinging on swings or using a tall seesaw
- Climbing to the top level of a playground structure
- Looking over the balcony of a second story platform
- Climbing to different rungs of a ladder (with a parent spotting)
- Jumping off the high dive in a pool
- Going on a ski lift
- Looking out the window of a high-rise building
- Walking outside in a safe area up high (The pathway of a tall bridge, building or scenic area)
Have them work on these things while holding a parent’s hand or with an adult holding them around their waist, then try to work up to them being able to do these things on their own without anyone touching them.