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Mum, I’m Scared!

Strategies to help your child cope with fear
By Judith Xavier

Scared girl

“I’m scared of the dark!”

“My tummy hurts. I can’t go to school today.”

“There’s a monster in the cupboard!”

A child’s fears, both real and imagined, can surface at any time. While it is common enough for all children to experience fears at different points in their growing up years, this can turn into anxiety and very real emotional distress if left unchecked for a prolonged period.

Often, the biggest challenge for parents and caregivers is striking a balance between empathising with the child, without feeding their fears. Here are three strategies to try with your child.

Talk about their fears

The worst thing you can do to a fearful child, is to minimise or ignore his fear. Saying “Don’t be scared” or “There’s nothing to be scared of” will only make him even more anxious. Instead, allow your child to speak freely about what is troubling him. Often, this may provide you with insight on the root cause of the fear itself, or what coping mechanisms might work best for the situation. Do keep a calm tone of voice and demeanour, even as you offer a listening ear. This will enable you to empathise with your child without increasing his anxiety.

Make a plan

If you observe your child closely, you’ll find that her fears will follow a predictable pattern. For example, a young child might be afraid of the dark, and you can be sure that this fear will emerge at bedtime each night, resulting in a standard routine of tears, tantrums and a refusal to go to bed.

To address this, you could find a time when your child is relaxed, and devise a simple plan of action that she can use. This might include switching on a nightlight before getting into bed each evening, and using self-talk to remind herself that the movements in the dark are simply shadows. If all else fails, they can then call for you. Having a plan assures your child that she is not helpless when fear strikes.

Provide gradual exposure

Completely avoiding the cause of your child’s fear can sometimes backfire and turn it into a long-standing phobia. Some fears can be overcome by gently introducing them to the subject of fear. For example, if a child is fearful of dogs, you might want to visit a park and observe the dogs playing from a distance. After a while, you could visit a friend who has a pet dog, and encourage your child to sit in the same room with it, and then to touch the dog’s coat, when he is comfortable doing so. With this slow and steady exposure, your child can overcome his fears.

Empowering children with the tools to cope with fear builds emotional resilience. As they move through childhood and into adult life, more complex issues are guaranteed to crop up – and these skills will help them deal with crises. In some cases, these coping strategies may not suffice and parents should seek the help of a counsellor who can guide their family effectively.

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