Written by Dr. Helen Andrews.
The emotion of fear is valuable from an evolutionary perspective. It helps to keep us away from danger and increases our chances of survival. Of course, it is not a pleasant sensation – it wouldn’t be effective if it was.
It is part of normal development for most children to have fears at some point. It is common for the younger child to fear monsters in the dark, and for slightly older children to become preoccupied with death and dying. These fears usually pass without cause for concern, with sensitive parenting and time. Also, most of us are more relaxed when things are familiar and predictable. So changes to a child’s life can also trigger anxieties. Whether this is starting school, a parent returning to work or simply a change to their bedroom.
However, some children seem to fear a whole range of situations, or display quite extreme reactions to certain situations. This could be for a number of reasons:
- Some children seem to have a more anxious temperament. Their anxiety is evident from an early age and becomes part of their personality – perhaps they are similar to other family members in this way.
- Some children may have underlying developmental conditions, such as Autism, that may make them more prone to experience anxiety, particularly in social situations.
- Others may have experienced a traumatic event that has sensitised them, or those around them, to possible danger.
- But most fears and anxieties are actually picked up from important people around the child.
Young children in particular, are very tuned in to the emotional worlds of their families and carers. You may think you are hiding your fear of spiders, or your anxiety at going to an unfamiliar place, but your child will have noticed. They will notice your anxiety but they will also notice how you manage it and this is the key.
If you run screaming from the room every time you see a spider, your child will learn that spiders are scary. If you talk about your fear of starting a new job, or driving somewhere new, then your child will learn to fear unfamiliar situations.
So, if you are concerned that your child is a worrier, or scared of lots of things – ask if the same is true of you. If you want to help your child, think about helping yourself. The ideal is that you overcome your own anxieties. This may be possible in some cases, either by yourself or with support. Where it is not likely, then you can still model living with anxiety in a positive way. For example, you might say, “I feel a bit nervous about going out with the mums from nursery, but I’m going to go as I’m sure I’ll have a good time when I’m there,” and so on. You could also try re-labelling ‘anxiety’ as ‘excitement’ – they are very similar emotions. When I’m in the queue for a roller coaster, I work very hard at telling myself I’m excited!
Of course it is fine to assure your child that nothing bad will happen but if you find you are constantly reassuring them, then that approach obviously isn’t resolving the issue.
If your child is currently feeling anxious about a situation, you can encourage them to talk about what is making them fearful. You may be able to change something, or provide them with new information that will make them feel more comfortable. Try not to tell them they are being silly, or even that there is nothing to be scared of. They are scared. Start by acknowledging that feeling and then take the discussion on. “You’re scared there is a monster under the bed, let’s have a look together … no, no monster there. Is there anywhere else you want us to look?” “You’re worried about starting big school. It can be difficult to start something new. I’ll be there to pick you up at the end of the day – and tomorrow it won’t be new anymore!”
Being fearful is different from worrying all the time. Focussed anxiety (fear) is usually something that can be resolved directly. Worrying is something more nebulous and vague and can be all consuming. In part, it can become a habit. So, you don’t want to find yourself only talking about worries. Try and broaden discussions to other topics with a positive focus and keep busy with fun activities.
Other things you can try include breaking big tasks down into little steps (such as graded exposure for phobias); doing things together initially and then slowly withdrawing; and understanding when things are too difficult today but focussing on rewarding and praising small achievements and steps in the right direction.
If you need additional help, then there are some excellent books (like ‘What to do when You Worry Too Much’ for 6 years+), or you can contact your health visitor, school nurse, GP or specialist. If you want to overcome your own anxieties, you could access a service like IAPT (available nationally) directly or through your GP.
Dr Helen Andrews is on the Toddle About Panel of Experts. She is a Clinical Psychologist with over 15 years experience working with children and young people. Through her business, Family Matters in Warwickshire, she helps parents when they can see that their child is struggling with their emotions, behaviour or development.
Contact Helen on 01564 795337 or find out more at www.familymattersinwarwickshire.co.uk