One of the hardest things as a parent is knowing what to do when your child fears something.
Sometimes the fear makes sense. Your teen gets stuck in an elevator and develops a fear of elevators. Your son gets knocked over by a dog and becomes fearful of dogs.
Other times, fear comes seems to come out of nowhere. One week your child loves the water; the next week they are terrified of the pool. For years your toddler didn’t mind spiders; now they scream in terror when they see one.
For many parents, it’s a gut reaction is to keep your child away from whatever is causing them fear and anxiety.
If your child is afraid of spiders, we try to get rid of the spiders before they see them. If they are afraid of dogs, we make sure dogs are put outside before we enter a house. We let them stop going to swim lessons if the pool is scary.
But avoiding what your child is afraid of only makes the fear become larger, more pervasive, and more difficult to overcome.
Regardless of what your toddler, child, or teen is afraid of, there is an important mantra for parents:
Avoidance makes anxiety. Approach makes it all right.
Here is what happens to your child if they avoid what scares them: the fear grows. And over time, that fear can manifest into phobias or generalized anxiety.
We want to prevent this.
And that’s why approach is important. Facing a fear makes it go away. It places your child back in emotional control.
While some people might advocate for “jumping in the deep end” with fear, the reality is that this can seriously backfire, triggering your child to have a panic attack or solidifying a worry or fear into full-blown phobia.
Instead, as parents, it’s our job to gently coach our child through their fears. Over time, this approach allows your child to overcome any fear or worries.
This strategy for slowly overcoming fears has a second advantage as well: It becomes part of your child’s narrative that they can do hard things.
It builds resilience and confidence to slowly overcome a fear.
And that’s why as parents, it’s important we support our child to face their worries and anxieties.
There are five strategies we can use to help make sure we succeed.
Prepare your child.
Ambushing your child with whatever it is they are afraid of is likely to trigger big emotions. Instead, prepare and plan. Let your child know what is going to happen and your expectations. For a child afraid of the water, you may let them know you’ll be going to the pool, but all you expect is that they put their feet in the water.
Provide small doses.
A few minutes of exposure to something that is a little scary is enough. And it’s always better to quit while you are ahead. Sometimes, your child is doing so well, you are tempted to try to push your child further. Thinking back to the pool example, you may try to get your child to get all the way in the water if they are successful at putting their feet in the water. Resist the urge to do so. Shifting expectations can make a child feel greater worry and anxiety – exactly what we are trying to help them get over.
Experience the fearful event with your child.
Don’t expect your toddler, child, or teen to go-it alone. Participate in the fearful event with your child. Modeling is a huge factor in helping a child overcome a fear. Yes, this means you may have to put on a swimsuit. Make sure to carefully manage your own emotions. If your child sees you become overly fearful, that can make their anxiety worse. Keep your cool and model how you want your child to act.
Be compassionate to your child’s feelings.
Fear is normal. Fear can keep us safe. Don’t discount your child’s emotions by telling them, “There is nothing to be afraid of.” Instead, empathize with your child’s feelings. “I know you feel scared of the pool. But I am here, and I will help you do this.”
Adjust your expectations.
It can be frustrating to manage a child who is having anxiety. Make sure that your expectations are realistic. It takes time to overcome worry and fear. The goal is to help your child keep making progress. And someday, they’ll just go jump into the pool. And you’ll be very proud of your child and proud of yourself for helping them get there. Most importantly, your child will be proud of themselves for overcoming their fear.
I am an award-winning scientist, educator, author, and a mom. I help parents accomplish their goals for themselves and their families.
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