Some Universal Tips & Guidelines
When it comes to helping a child overcome their fears, here are some universal tips and guidelines that apply to just about every situation:
- Avoid shock therapy
Many parents take the approach of forcing a child to confront their fears head-on, a sort of sink or swim technique for phobias. This almost always backfires, and is more likely to intensify their fear than cure them of it. When you force exposure to something at a time when fear and anxiety are at peak levels, it tends to reinforce those emotions. You don’t reduce fear by creating an experience where children feel acutely afraid. There are some exceptions (such as getting a child to ride a roller coaster) in which doing it despite your fear may be necessary, but only because you’re hoping the experience will change these emotions from fear to excitement. But for general phobias, forcing a terrified child to confront them is usually not helpful. You need to expose them gradually.
- Know that your assurances will require repetition
Use matter-of-fact words to offer comforting reassurances, but understand that your child may have trouble hearing or believing these things. Childhood fears generally aren’t rational, and so they tend to be resistant to even the best reasoning. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t offer such reassurances; quite the contrary. It means that you need to patiently administer these reassurances over and over again and not get frustrated when they don’t immediately put your child at ease.
- Make it funny
Work in humor whenever possible. The more fun you can have with something, the more it will reduce anxiety. Fear and humor are antithetical to each other. So try to find ways to create humor around your child’s feared object:
A) Draw a cartoony picture of your child’s fear and then add silly features to it together. For example, you might add a goofy hat, draw it riding a skateboard, or plaster it with food items and squirt it with a water gun.
B) Tell jokes. Young kids love to make up their own humor, and as you probably already know, these jokes don’t have to make any sense; they just have to be silly. So create puns about “why did the monster cross the road?” or come up with crazy ideas about what might happen “if you gave a spider a skateboard.”
- Demonstrate coping skills
You can help teach children to manage their anxieties by modeling healthy ways of coping with fear. For instance…
A) Teach them how to take deep breaths. By age 4 children have developed the body awareness and patience necessary to be taught deep breathing exercises. (Information on focused breathing techniques can be found in our family recovery handbook.)
B) Teach them how to close their eyes and repeat a thought or phrase in their mind over and over again to combat their fears.
C) Teach them to imagine their fear naked or wearing a pink tutu or perhaps eating an ice cream cone stuffed with broccoli…any humorous mental image that will calm your child’s panic.
D) Or come up with your own ritualistic exercises. It’s not the technique so much that matters; it’s the sense of empowerment children feel by having something to do that gives them a sense of control. The placebo effect can be quite powerful, and teaching kids a few coping methods can go a long way toward helping them manage their fears.
- Seeking professional help for a child’s fears.
If the suggestions we provide throughout this information do not work and a child’s phobia remains severe, you may want to consider professional help. The most common treatment for fears is exposure therapy, which builds up a child’s immunity to the fear-provoking stimulus by gradually exposing them to their fear-inducing object in a safe and manageable situation. (You can read more on exposure therapy in our child mental health section.) However, most children grow out of their fears with time, and therapy is only necessary if a fear is impeding a child’s day-to-day functioning.