It is not a bad thing for children to be afraid of genuine dangers – fear can be a useful self-defence mechanism. But many kids are made miserable by phobias and panic. It can be puzzling, because sometimes the things that trigger the distress seem so non-threatening.
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The feedback loop
When fear is triggered, there is a release of adrenaline which enables us to run faster or fight harder. Unfortunately, most of the things that frighten us do not require fighting or fleeing, but we still experience the adrenaline buzz – a pounding heart, flush of blood, tense muscles etc.
The adrenaline experience itself can be distressing but what can happen is a ‘feedback loop’ is established. The adrenaline buzz creates the physical feeling of fear. This is then interpreted as, “There is a real threat here,” leading to feeling even more afraid. The emotion is believed, rather than the truth of the situation.
For example – a visitor arrives whom your child has not met before and so they feel a little shy. The shyness creates a fear response, and the child interprets the emotion they are experiencing as evidence that the visitor is a real threat. This is called emotional reasoning.
Children can actually come to understand this insight themselves. Coach your child with helpful reassurances and a calm presence. Try phrases such as, “This is a big feeling, nothing is actually wrong. You can handle this. This is just your adrenaline working overtime.” By giving a child new ways of looking at what frightens them and developing new verbal skills, they will be able to get used to the dreaded situation.
Encourage them to say helpful phrases out loud and often, making a deliberate choice to believe them. “I can handle this!”, “Feeling afraid does not mean this is really dangerous.”
Why children worry
They feel insecure
Younger children may need the security of being cuddled as you reassure them through the fear. It may help your child acknowledge their feelings if you share some of the insecurities you had as you were growing up and what you did to overcome them.
They’re reminded of a big fright
It’s possible the situation they are in reminds them of a big fright they have had before. For example, they were once bitten by a dog, and now all dogs scare them. Phobias (illogical and inappropriate fears) can often be tracked back to an early trauma. If possible, look at the original trauma and reinterpret it. “I know that you got bitten once, but not all dogs bite. You are right to be careful with big dogs, but I’ll show you what to do.”
An immature understanding of risk
For example, they know that planes crash but don’t know how rare it is. TV news constantly uses hysterical language that we adults have learned to filter (I hope!), but it could impact our children. Some scenes and plots in movies can do this too.
This is when your authoritative interpretation of the world or events can be useful. “Yes, that was terrible, but that is happening a long way away – we do not have that problem in this country.” “I know it looks a bit scary, but I know they check these rides to make sure they are completely safe.”
They have picked up on our fear cues
Let’s face it – it’s not just kids who feel fear. If they read anxiety in our face at the doctor’s office or when we leave them with a babysitter, then they will believe there is genuine danger.
They are tired
Sometimes a child might just be exhausted or distressed by something else, and they lack the emotional resilience to handle even just a small upset. As you respond, take into account the whole situation – Have they just returned home from staying with another parent? Did they have a late night? Could that bottle of Coke be affecting her?
Tips for managing worries
- Have predictable daily routines, like eating together.
- Give the worry a name, like Mr Wobbles or Fluttery Face. This helps them talk about it.
- Set aside a ‘worry time’. Learning to postpone worry helps with managing it.
- Use the phrase, “This feeling will fade away.” Children need reminding that big feelings pass with time.
Books can help
Try reading a story aloud and discussing how the character learned to handle the situation. Ask questions such as, “What do you think the child in this story is feeling? Why?” “Do you ever feel the way the child in this story feels?” “What are some other ways this situation could have been handled? How would you do it?”
Life can be scary. Let’s equip our children with emotional resilience so their distress and anxiety is no greater than it needs to be.
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