Mom. Come here, now,” my 3-year old whispers urgently as he pulls me toward the yard. “Red eyes,” he says, shivering with fear. “Red eyes.”
My son believes we have a monster downstairs — but only at night when we are upstairs. Other monsters live in bushes at the back of our yard, where they feast on stray baseballs and Frisbees. That is why he is worried now.
“Monsters are just pretend,” I say.
A Big, Scary World
As their understanding of the world increases, so do kids’ fears. Infants may be fearful of separation or loud noises, and those fears stick with kids into the toddler years.
As their experiences and imaginations grow, toddlers may also develop fears of animals and insects (dogs, snakes, spiders), characters in costumes (Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny) and things that lurk in the dark (ghosts and monsters, bad guys and robbers).
They may also fear they’ll be sucked down the toilet or the bathtub drain, despite your constant reassurance that they won’t. School-aged kids may get over their fear of the boogeyman but grow anxious about social disapproval and failure.
“Anxious thinking, for all of us, is notoriously distorted, exaggerated and unreliable,” notes Dr. Tamar Chansky, psychologist and author of Freeing Your Child from Anxiety (Three Rivers Press, $14.99). But confronting even the silliest scary scenarios helps kids learn to deal with real-life woes and worries. When your daughter shrieks and clings to your leg because the neighbor’s Border collie bounces her way, embrace the teachable moment.
When to Seek Help
If your child’s fears keep her from engaging in everyday activities, it may be time to seek professional help. Anxious kids may be trapped in a whirlwind of fearful thoughts, and paralyzed by nagging “what ifs.”
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 13 percent of children are affected by anxiety disorders, which include phobias, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Talk with your pediatrician or school psychologist if your child’s fears are overwhelming you both.
Fight Fears Together
Here are some ideas and techniques that will enable you to help your child face down fears.
Respect feelings. Fear feels uncomfortable. Your child’s heart is racing, her palms are sweaty and she wants to escape to safety. Be her ally and accept her anxiety. If she isn’t ready to pet the snake at the zoo or sleep without a nightlight, don’t push it.
Ask questions. Kids can’t always express what scares them. Help your child identify specific concerns using age-appropriate words. Ask “what is it about the dog that worries you?” or “what might happen when the lights are off?” You can’t devise strategies if you don’t know the enemy.
Do reconnaissance. The more your child learns about the feared situation, the less powerful his imaginary thoughts will be. Hold hands while you both check the basement for monsters. Go online and read about snakes together. Knowledge is power.
Talk back. Encourage your child to argue against the frightening thoughts or to repeat a calming phrase such as “I am fast and strong. Ghosts can’t catch me!” Talking back shrinks scary thoughts. Susan Mather’s son was sure there were monsters under the bed and in the closet. “We put a sign on the door that read ‘Monsters KEEP OUT’ and they obeyed!” she says.
Baby steps. “The best way to face a fear is a little at a time, from a safe distance,” says child therapist H. Norman Wright. Face a fear of heights by imagining the scary situation first. Then, move on to climbing a low structure, followed by a taller one, and so on. Give high-fives as kids conquer each challenge.
Be there. Kids need to know you’ll stick with them when they face their fears. Don’t let your own distress or embarrassment cause you to shut down or disappear. “Research indicates it takes about 20 minutes for the anxiety to subside when a fear is confronted,” Wright says. Work toward this goal with your child.
Heidi Smith Luedtke, PhD, is a psychologist and freelance writer.