How do parents and children overcome “fear” together?
Fear is a common emotion in preschoolers, and learning how to manage fear is very important to them. Children's fears are diverse, from specific fears (animals, heights, shadows...) to imaginary fears (monsters, ghosts, "something under the bed"...), and new experiences (such as seeing a doctor, making new friends, sleeping alone...). Learning to face fear in a healthy and right way is not easy. Instead of saying common phrases such as “don't be afraid” or “you have nothing to be afraid of,” parents can refer to a few suggestions below to accompany their children through their fears and manage their emotions.
1. Embrace and respect your child’s fears
Parents often say things like “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” In essence, this statement does not help children feel less afraid but is a manifestation of avoidance rather than facing fear, and avoiding will cause fear to be suppressed rather than disappear. The avoidance is usually only a temporary effect and when not approached healthily, the fear will continue to return another day. Such a statement can send a message to the child that “My parents do not believe in my fears,” or “I am not allowed to feel fear.” As such, it will become harder for children to open up to share with their parents.
The first step on the journey with children to overcome fear always starts from embracing the children’s fear with words of encouragement and comfort, like, “It’s okay, You’re safe, I’m here,” and knowing that fear is a normal type of emotion that children need to experience. For the children, the most frightening thing is not what is actually happening, but the thoughts and fantasies that are in their minds. Therefore, parents should be ready to listen to all the sharing to understand and help children overcome that fear.
2. Confront and share fears by asking questions
Not all kids know how to talk about their fears, so parents need to ask questions so their children can answer and share. For example, if the child keeps following you and doesn’t want to be away from you, you might ask, “What scares you when I’m not here?” “Are you worried about me or you?” “What are you imagining will happen?” Or if he/she is afraid of dogs, ask the question “Why do you find dogs scary?” “Did any dog startle you or make you fall?” “Is there a dog that scares you?”
Through the answers, we can identify what the child is afraid of as well as why he/she is scared. Understanding will give parents a clearer orientation on how to help their child overcome fear. “You seem to be worried that if I’m not around, something will happen, right? I feel that you’re worried, aren’t you?” Let the child know that you are embracing and taking his/her fears very seriously, and you are available to help.
3. Step by step to overcome fear by planning
Parents can plan together with their children to establish reasonable goals. Do it with your child with a lot of effort and patience. If he/she is very afraid to sleep alone, the plan below maybe a suggestion, and of course, flexibility is also needed depending on each child. Each phase of the plan can last from one day to several days:
- Stage 1: Read 2 books before bed, turn off the lights, turn on the sleep lights, and then sit quietly with your child (without talking or playing) until they fall asleep.
- Stage 2: Read 1 book before sleeping, then turn off the light and turn on the sleep light. Parents will leave the door open and be right outside, but not in the room.
- Stage 3: Read 1 book before sleeping, then turn on the bedside lights and close the door.
- Stage 4: Read a book before bedtime, then turn off the light and close the door.
4. Increase thinking and practical experience to demonstrate some fears are not real
Fear makes it easy for you to think that the worst is about to happen, which is how the brain tries to protect us from danger. Parents can also tell their children about this, that the brain doesn’t always know if the danger is real or fake. Encouraging the child to become a “thought detective” or to give practical experiences will help him/her change fears and have faith in his/her limits.
For example, when the child feels like “there’s a monster under the bed,” parents may encourage him/her to become a detective, find out if it’s true or just feeling, and check under the bed to see what it really is. When parents are around to support, let children see for themselves, observe for themselves, and help them feel their courage. When the child has directly witnessed everything and collected evidence for himself/herself that there is really nothing under the bed, then he/she feels more confident and safe.
5. Educate your child to self-regulate, self-talk and gradually not rely too much on parents
When your child’s fears appear, comforting and calming him/her down are essential first steps. However, parents also need a balance for their children to learn independence, courage and fear management without relying too much on their parents because every child will grow up and independence needs to be compensated step by step through self-regulation.
Self-regulation is essentially the ability to manage emotions and behaviours healthily. It can include taking a deep breath and talking to yourself when you recognize fear. Gradually, when used to sharing with parents, answering questions, and thinking and experiencing for themselves, children will be able to know how to face, reassure and overcome fear independently. This self-regulation takes time, which means that sometimes parents also need to be reassured for their children to experience a bit of fear, and then they can learn and walk through it on their own.
6. Continue to encourage and be patient with your child
Finally, parents should always remember that any change requires patience. Be consistent, but don’t forget to praise your children’s efforts through the power of words, even from the tiniest things: “I think you’re really brave to be in a room alone 30 minutes like that. Let’s see if we can do better than that tomorrow!” Parents can refer to “30 meaningful words of encouragement for children” here.
Facing fear properly not only helps children become courageous but also can make them empathize and live more freely. A child who gradually overcomes fear in a healthy way will never look at other people’s fear and judge them as weak. He/she will know that they are on a journey to learn about courage. Educating your child through fear is helping him/her develop more emotional intelligence and empathy with other people’s fears, making him/her understand that behind fear is courage and empathy.