Fears are a normal part of childhood because fear is an innate, protective response to situations or objects which appear threatening or dangerous. Fear is a useful emotion for the survival of the individual and the species, and even very young babies will show a startle reaction and distress to an event like a sudden loud noise.
JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY
To understand the nature of children's fears, it is helpful to think of childhood as a journey through unknown territory. As babies move from the security of their mothers' arms, begin to crawl around the lounge, then toddle off into the uncharted regions of the back yard, they gradually push back the frontiers of the safe and familiar. Along the way they encounter strange and potentially dangerous situations and objects - steps, heaters, dogs, darkness, noisy machines, unfamiliar adults - learning as they go (a) how to deal with them, and (b) not to be afraid of them. This learning process continues through childhood, with each new experience teaching the child more about the world, and reducing their fear of the unfamiliar and threatening.
KINDS OF FEARS
Almost all children experience fear at some stage in their development, and it is interesting that they tend to experience similar fears at similar ages.
Typical fears can be grouped into three main categories:
Environmental fears are understandable anxieties about real things such as animals, thunder, the dark, and burglars.
Imaginary fears are worries about things such as ghosts and monsters from stories and movies.
Social fears are anxieties about social situations such as being separated from Mum, being left at preschool, starting school, and joining a sports or some other group for the first time.
These three groups tend to follow a rough chronological order, with toddlers and preschoolers more prone to environmental fears, older preschoolers and early primary school children more likely to experience imaginary fears, and social fears persisting through to the teenage years and beyond. For example, not many adults are scared of the dark, but there are plenty who would feel anxious about speaking in front of an audience.
Children's fears also tend to become more realistic as they grow older. For example, one survey of Australian teenagers showed that their greatest fear was of nuclear war, followed by being in a car accident or fire, falling from a high place, and encounters with a burglar, snake, or poisonous spider.
DEALING WITH FEARS
Most parents seem to follow almost instinctively the basic principles which have been shown to be effective in dealing with children's fears.
If at all possible, prepare your child for an experience which they might find frightening. If you see the lightning flash, tell them that a loud bang is coming. For children who have to go to hospital, give them as much information as possible about what is going to happen. There is no doubt that knowledge inoculates against fear.
Through your own behaviour, model or demonstrate the way you would like your child to respond to a potentially scary situation.
Appropriate modelling helps in three ways. Firstly, it shows your child what to do in the situation, which increases his own confidence about being able to handle it and cope with it. Secondly, it shows him that nothing bad is going to happen to him. Thirdly, it teaches him the lesson that even if you are feeling a bit scared, facing your fear is the best way to deal with it.
It is important to keep your own anxieties under wraps, especially if you know that your own fears tend to be unrealistic or excessive. Children can be taught to be afraid of things, which they would otherwise happily deal with, by observing their parents' anxieties.
3 Gradual exposure
If your child has a particular fear, help her to overcome it by exposing her to it in gradual steps, from least to most scary. For example, if she is afraid of dogs, start with pictures of dogs, then observing dogs at a distance, then patting a small, quiet dog, then patting and stroking bigger, passive dogs. Fear of separation can be dealt with by gradually increasing the time you are away, from five minutes through to a few hours.
Graduated exposure to the feared object or situation is more likely to be successful than "throwing in at the deep end", which runs the risk of increasing a child's anxiety about the situation. Let your child set the pace by choosing what the next step will be in confronting their fear. Progress will be more rapid if he stays within his comfort zone as he moves from step to step.
Highlight and praise the progress your child is making in dealing with his fears. Reinforce the message that he is being very brave, because in doing so you are making the quality of being brave a part of his self-image, which will help him to deal with future fears.
A small percentage of children seem to be fearful by nature or temperament. From an early age their usual response to new situations tends to be avoidance or withdrawal, and they seem to be generally more worried and anxious than other children.
Temperamentally anxious children present a special challenge to parents who want them to take part with confidence in the usual range of childhood activities. Despite their best intentions, parents can become exasperated and impatient with their children's anxieties and clinginess, a reaction which tends to make the problem worse.
Chronically anxious children, who are sometimes described as being "shy", simply find it hard to do the things that other children take in their stride, particularly in regard to social activities. In order to help their shy child, parents need to;
- accept that their child has a genuine problem, and is not just being difficult for the sake of it
- adjust their expectations for social competence to a level closer to what their child is able to achieve
- find the delicate balance of encouraging and supporting their child to try new activitieswithout placing them under the constant pressure of being forced to do things that don't come naturally
- use the procedures for dealing with specific fears outlined above seek professional help from a child psychologist if their child's enjoyment of life is being significantly impaired by the severity of their general shyness or more specific anxieties.