How parents can help their fearful children

Children love to be protected by their parents. PHOTO/COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • Caution. Some of the common fear triggers among children include death, heights, darkness and animals.
  • Your children could be battling fear and here are tips on how to deal with them.  

One of my children who is nine years old, is overly fearful. He fears the dark so much you will tuck him in his bed in the night and find him in his brother’s bed the next morning. Or while watching TV with his friends or siblings and all of a sudden he will bolt out of the room and start peeping from a distance.  

I am not alone. Ms Patience Kagwa, a mother to seven-year-old Miracle, shares a familiar experience; “Miracle is very fearful. Even during the day, she will fear to go to a moderately dark room in the house or fear of ghosts and monsters. You have to send  her with her younger siblings. And she is 10 years old.”   Fear is triggered by threat of harm whether physically, or emotionally.

Fear is often seen as a negative emotion but it can also be positive, reasonable, and healthy; for instance, fear of being hit by a car can help a child avoid walking in the middle of the road. However, when fear interrupts the normal way of life of a child, then it becomes negative and unhealthy. Prolonged fear can become anxiety. 

Some of the common fear triggers among children can be: death, heights, darkness, animals.  You may be like Patience or  myself who have children battling fear and you do not know what to do. But here are some tips I have found out from research that may help our children:  

Possible causes of fear 
What does he/she watch on TV or listen to? You may think that all children’s shows are innocent but in truth many nowadays are violent. If they watch scary stuff they will have nightmares and therefore begin to fear. And it is all over on social media and they are consuming it.   

Do they have an anxiety disorder? Is there anything in their environment (school or church or neighbourhood) that makes them constantly afraid? If it is recurrent, intense, persistent, and interferes with a child’s living a normal life, then that might be an anxiety disorder.   Do they have anything on their minds that is magnified by the isolation when they are in the dark? Is that the case with your child? Have you talked to them about it?

Hypersensitivity: A child who is very sensitive and emotional is also likely to be very fearful. And that is who my son is. While his brother will not bat an eyelid on some issues, this one will. He if soft and tender. You are likely to hurt his feelings than you would his brother’s. 

How do you help your child cope with fear? 
Do not force them to get rid of their fears immediately but help them face them gradually. Don’t put them down with words such as, “At your age, there is nothing to fear in that room. Its just a room. Why don’t you go there and bring me my towel?”. In doing this you are invalidating their feelings. Rather gradually expose them to the things they fear. For instance, if they fear dogs, walk them beside a dog. Help them stroke it from a distance while you shield them.

Share with them your experience with fear. Let them know they are not alone;  that you also fear sometimes even if you are their parent and how you overcome it. It might be of great comfort to him/her.        

We pray with him daily to comfort him and tell him that a big God watches over him to protect him. Psalm 23 is one of those psalms we regularly pray through that are of particular comfort to him in such times of fear. It talks about God’s protection and provision for His people. We also read with him heroic stories of God’s deliverance of His people from evil forces. In that he can also put his trust in God and not fear. We also recite and memorise particular verses about not fearing such as 2 Timothy 1:7.   

Leave the lights on 
Sometimes we leave the lights on in the corridor at night for his psychological comfort. Another parent will give their child a flashlight. Anything that gives a child s sense of control over the darkness should be employed.  

Playing calming music has been known to comfort some children over fear. Patience says, “Miracle sings a lot when she fearful. I think it is a form of company for her. She will even create songs to mask the fear. Sometimes you hear her singing her own compositions. It is tough. 

Keep an eye on what they watch. Being the youngest child, I often find that the older ones often bully my fearful son; they refuse to change channels even when they know that some content makes him fearful. I have to keep intervening to see what they are watching so I can change it if I find it inappropriate. I also limit his screen time.

Stop employing fear tactics
Some parents use fear to threaten their children into submission not knowing that it makes them more fearful.

One of my children fears fireworks. I don’t know for what reason. I have had to stop her siblings from using it to scare her or stop her from crying. 

If they develop anxiety, you may want to seek professional help for them from a paediatrician or psychologist.  
In conclusion, fears are normal for any child depending on their age. However, if they persist and recur often, they may interfere with a child’s healthy development so they must be addressed first by the parent and later by a child psychologist if necessary.          

Don’t poke fun at them or ridicule them for being fearful. You make it worse. Rather, talk to them about their fears and show them that you understand how they feel.  

Remove anything from their environment that will cause them to fear. For instance, when I was young, there was this particular art piece that looked creepy hang in our sitting room that we all feared for no particular reason. It belonged to our father. It is still there up to this day. Every time I visit and look at it, I still feel a sense of fear that I felt when I was a child.

If your child has social fears such as fear of rejection because of his skin colour or whatever else, affirm him as a person. You know children between the ages of 13-17 (adolescence) want to fit in with their friends. They want to be accepted so they may fear to be rejected. As a parent, you can address this fear by affirming to them how special and gifted they are. Build their self-esteem and confidence. It may take a while.