I write this at Halloween. Which means it is the time of year for scary masks in the aisles of the grocery store, age-inappropriate shows or commercials at all hours of the day on every screen, and countless other opportunities for your child to see or hear something that scares them. Unfortunately, we parents cannot completely protect our kids from these scary experiences. In this article, I hope to lay out a few ideas on how to guard your child from unnecessary fear, as well as what to do if/when they get scared.
Guard Their Experiences
Do your best to act as a guardian, letting the good in and keeping the harmful out. Here are a few tips towards that goal.
- Watch what they watch – Just because a show comes with an age rating doesn’t mean it is age appropriate. Children lack the capability of processing fear and separating themselves from it. What they see stays with them. Try to guard what they see as best you can.
- Avoid certain aisles – It is crazy to see some of the stuff that is hanging in the middle aisle of a grocery store. It’s crazy because it can often be out of bounds. Children are not immune from the blood and gore on a mask that we adults have become numb to. They don’t have the experience to know that it’s fake.
- Maintain a conversation – Chances are, regardless of your vigilance to guard their eyes they will still see something at school, on the bus, or out in the community that frightens them. Pay attention to changes in their mood and try to patiently talk with them when it changes drastically. Build in a history of good conversation so that when they are afraid they feel safe enough to come talk with you.
Process Their Fear
So, what do you do when they get locked down by fear? Simply put, be safe and be their guide. Here is some advice to help you help them.
- Don’t shame them – The worst way to shame a child’s fear is by minimizing or invalidating it. They may freak out when they see something that you think this is absolutely ridiculous, but in their small world this may be the greatest fear they know. Help them develop strength and courage by naming and facing their fear, rather than acting as if their fear doesn’t matter.
- Help them identify their fear – Often times we parents only see the symptoms of fear (anxiety, hiding, screaming/crying, and defiance) without understanding what it is all about. This morning my 5 year old son threw a huge tantrum to avoid getting on the bus for school. Rather than reacting in anger, I non-reactively got On his level and was able to help him feel safe, at which point he told me about the kid who bullied him the day before. He didn’t know why he was scared, he just knew he didn’t want to be on the bus. It is our role as parents to help them find the words to describe what they are afraid of.
- Help them self-soothe – Teach your child to breathe. Through the nose, hold in the tummy, blow out slowly and hold again. Do this in increments of 2 or 3 seconds each. Breathing deeply is the fastest way to self soothe towards calm. Also offer safe touch through holding. They may do well to hold a stuffed animal or blanket. In teaching them this, you are helping them gain the confidence to face their fears throughout life, rather than fighting or fleeing when they feel afraid.
- Let them talk, draw or play it out – They may need to say it over and over again before they begin to feel safe. Our apartment complex was hit by a tornado in 2010 when my daughter was 4. She talked about her experience at least a hundred times that year, and still does when the clouds swirl and wind ruffles the trees. This is good. In talking she is able to process the traumatic fear and develop a sense of safety. If they cannot put it into words, allow them to play it out with their toys or draw it out on paper.
- Provide a safe space – Kids essentially need safety and security in order to grow and thrive. You can provide them what they need by developing a quiet spot in your house that is just theirs, where they can go to self-soothe and calm down by themselves or with others.
- Worry box – Help your child create a small decorated box, and then provide a pencil and note cards for them to write or draw their fears on. Help them develop the practice of putting their worries into the box before they get overwhelmed.
- Play Therapy – Play therapy is one of the best researched therapies provided. A professional counselor, trained in play therapy, can help your child process recurring fear when you feel your child is stuck in it.
Fear that goes unprocessed or ignored, often turns into a problematic symptom. If your child becomes deeply afraid, your main role is to help them feel safe and process their fear through talk, art or play.