What to do:
Self-talk. Instead of telling yourself that your child will suffer from feeling fearful about things, tell yourself, “It’s normal to have all kinds of feelings, including feeling fearful. I can help by keeping my own fears under control and providing a sense of safety and ways to problem-solve.”
Empathy. Ask yourself, “How do I feel when I don’t know what to expect or don’t understand what to do about something. Just like my child, I sometimes feel fearful about things that I can’t control and blow them out of proportion.”
Teach. Tell yourself, “I can teach my child ways to keep those fearful feelings from taking over his life, and be stronger and able to deal with anything that comes his way. He will remember the times that I am positive, patient, and calm.” Even through challenges in his life, you can help him build a foundation of strength and resilience that can last a lifetime through managing his fears.
Use the SOCS method to decrease fear about decisions. If you find that you and/or your child are fearful about making a “wrong” decision because bad things are going to happen if you do, change the definition of “fear time” to “problem-solving” time. When you do the following problem-solving SOCS activity, your child will also learn that there is usually not only one “right answer” or way of thinking about something. Tell your child that making a mistake is sometimes the best way of learning.
Practice the SOCS method of analyzing a decision: Name the situation; look at the options you have for handling it; write down the consequences of each option; and then choose the best solution. Help your child learn to make decisions based on the available information at the time. And then, talk about the fact that you may make another or different decision if the information changes. What’s important is the flexibility, not the perfectionism—progress, not perfection. Life is all about learning!
Teach mindfulness. Through simple exercises called “mindfulness”, you can help your child learn two important things: thoughts do not define us and thoughts are not real—they can be changed. Ask him to go to a fear-free place in his mind whenever anxiety and worry creep in—start the process by asking him to take a deep breath and let it out. Without stressful thinking, your child’s mind is relaxed and open to problem-solving.
Teach your child to repeat calming words to replace his fearful thoughts that will help him move from problem to solution. He can pick the words—and depending on his age, you can help him find some. For example, “I love the beach,” or “Flowers are my favorite thing.” The Dalai Lama has said, “If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to be afraid. If it's not fixable, then there is no help in fearful. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.” This philosophy is at the heart of learning resilience and being mindful of your how changing your thoughts can change your life.
Praise. Say, “You were so brave the way you handled that thunderstorm. You stayed calm and talked with me about your feelings. I know you were afraid that it might hurt us, but it only made a lot of noise. Then, it was over, and the loud noise stopped.” Talking about what happened will build a sense of capability into your child, so he knows himself, without you even saying so, that he can be resilient and cope when he is fearful.
Watch for signs of stress in children of all ages. These may include fear of being alone, bad dreams, “accidents” or constipation, bed-wetting, changes in appetite, or an increase in temper tantrums, whining, or clinginess. Your extra hugs and reassurance, plus doing calming, comforting things at bedtime and during the day, as described below, can go a long way to provide your child a sense of safety and build resilience
Talk about feelings. When your young child is feeling fearful, sit with her and calmly encourage her to “draw it out.” Help your child name her feeling (fearful, anxious, afraid, sad, concerned, frustrated, and so on). Then ask, “What color is your feeling? What shape?” Help her label her picture with words or sentences. This works with any feeling (of course, there can be more than one feeling in a picture). You can do this, too, by drawing your own feelings, too, and then talking about your feelings and your child’s.
Show you understand. Say, “I understand that you want to know what will happen if…a bad thing happens. Let’s talk about that. What do you think will happen? Let’s think it through. Whatever happens, we can handle it together.”
Demonstrate positive self-talk. Say, “I was afraid about that, too, but I just told myself that we will be okay. We will handle together whatever happens.”
Role-play and practice. Predictability is important for us all…when we know what’s going to happen, we feel more in control and less fearful because we know what to expect. Therefore, when possible, helping children practice what it will be like to go on an airplane (pretend to pack a bag, go through screening, etc.); go to school (visit the school many times with your child and without); what will happen at recess (pretend play what recess will be like); and how the lunch hour will work (play “lunch hour”), for example, are fun ways to reduce fear about “what if” through play.
Create a schedule. Children who are more fearful by their inborn nature will benefit from making a schedule of the routine of the day. We all feel better knowing the rules—that is also part of reducing stress and worry.
Answer your child’s questions simply and honestly. Getting answers from you about whatever he is afraid of is better than not knowing.
Create a fear-free zone. Make one time of day (such as mealtime) a “no-fear zone!” In that zone, you might talk about things you want to do together in the future, favorite places you've been together, your favorite moment of the day so far, and something you’re looking forward to tomorrow. This will help you focus on hugs, smiles, and a positive and optimistic way of approaching life, particularly for a child who is more sensitive and anxious in temperament.
Share your ways of coping. Say, “When I am fearful about something, I just think of all the ways I can manage if it really happens. That way, if a bad thing happens, I’ll be prepared.”
Help your child get comfortable with uncertainty. Sometimes “not knowing” what will happen is all we know. Explain that while we are uncertain about what will happen in a certain situation (a new teacher, a visit to the doctor, a pesky relationship with a friend, etc.), talk about the fear your child has by discussing these steps.
For your younger child, simplify the lesson by saying: “When you’re fearful about something, just say to yourself, ‘No matter what, my Mom and Dad (or other trusted adult) will be here for me to help me figure out a solution.’” Or, “When I am fearful about something, I can just think of all the ways I will deal with it, if it really happens. That way, if a bad thing happens, I’ll be prepared.” Then talk about a few things your child can do if he is scared or anxious, such as taking deep breaths, thinking about a favorite toy or activity, and how he has done hard things before.
Teach these four steps to your school-age child when he is fearful. Say to your child, “Here are 4 steps to help you deal with fear, be stronger and able to deal with anything that comes your way!” Then go over these steps with her:
- First, ask yourself, “What am I fearful about? Then name your feeling (worried, anxious, afraid, sad, concerned, frustrated, etc.).
- Then, think, “Can I do something about this problem?
- Next, say, “If you cannot do something, let go of the fear and focus on something different that is important to you right now. What could that be?” Then brainstorm things such as talking to a trusted adult at school, sharing feelings with a friend, playing outside, exercising.
- Finally, say. “If you can do something, let’s make a plan about what we can control and what we can do about the situation. I’m excited to help, if you want me to.”
Seek help if needed. If you or your child cannot stop the habit of being afraid of things and the stress is interrupting sleep or creating other upsetting behaviors, such as tantrums, seek help from you and/or your child’s healthcare provider.
What not to do:
Don’t get upset when your child is fearful. Getting annoyed with your child over fearful feelings will create more worry. What she needs is assurance that you will be there for her no matter what, and help problem-solving the situation to build resilience.
Don’t model fear about what your child is doing. If you say you are afraid of things that your child is doing, she will imitate that. Say aloud to yourself that you can handle whatever comes along, which will reduce your fears and model confidence.
Don’t ignore fears. When your child is fearful or concerned, don’t ignore her feelings or just tell her “not to be afraid. Help her cope with fears and anxiety, worry and dread by letting those feelings become “teachable moments” to help your child (and you!) learn how to manage those emotions, just like you respond to her feelings of joy and love with hugs and help.