Fears in Children: Keeping Children Aware Without Stressing Them Out
One of the biggest hindrances to confidence and accomplishment is fear. Fear can be the deterrent that keeps us from moving forward, but it can also save us from being foolish. As adults, we understand that allowing fear to rule our lives can cause us to miss out on many of life’s great experiences!
For instance, you may want to experience sky diving sometime in your life. You expect that when you go to make the jump, you will likely feel fear at that moment. From experience, you recognize that you must get past this fear in order to accomplish your goal. You are either allowing fear to cause you to deny yourself the desired reward of tackling this point on your life’s bucket list, or you are confidently working past it to plan your sky diving adventure!
Think about how fear changes your own decisions. Or does it? Then, think about this emotion in the mind of a child. A child is looking for signals from you as to how to handle fear. Your example and wise council can help them learn how to recognize rational fears and how to discard and move through irrational ones. Be sure to explain to your children the difference between the two.
Today we will talk about the natural fears children experience and how we, as parents, can help them overcome and have control over their own emotions so they can have the confidence they need to accomplish their life’s goals. We will also discuss how to warn children about real dangers without causing them to become fearful.
First let’s talk about a few irrational fears and how to handle them.
Fear of the dark
Fear of the dark is the most common fear of all in children. But, this is truly an irrational fear, isn’t it? Yet, it is a real one and cannot be dismissed.
The most important point to overcoming any fear is information. If your child exhibits fear of the dark, have a discussion with them about light and darkness. Day and night, sun and moon, and let them experiment with flash lights in dark rooms. Help them understand that darkness is only the absence of light and it doesn’t change anything in the room. Everything is still as it was before the light was turned out.
You can even talk to them about their eyes, how they work to let light in and adjust to the light that is around them. That their eyes open wider when there is less light and close up when there is more.
You can also play a game with them. Sit with them in the room and tell them to look around. Then, turn off the light and ask them to name all the things they can think of that were in the room before the light went out. Count how many things they can remember. Then turn the light back on. What things did they miss? Has anything changed? Try again and see if they can name more things this time.
This game helps them think about how things don’t change just because the light goes out. All stays the same. Assure them that all is well and their fear of the dark is irrational, but common. They can overcome it!
In my view, having a night light is not a good idea. The reason is that they become dependent on it and do not overcome their fear of the dark if they must always have a light on at all times. Leaving their door slightly open so light from another room can dimly light their room is ok until their eyes adjust. Letting them have a large huggable toy is also a good way to make them feel secure. But none of these things should become a habit to the point of causing upset or disruption to a bedtime routine if it is changed.
Tell them to hug the toy and say a prayer if they start to feel afraid. Assure them that God is there with them and there is nothing to fear. It is all in their mind and they can overcome it. Show confidence in their ability and let them know you understand.
The fear of the dark is such a good way to teach how to overcome irrational fears. Never disregard their fears, but let them know they must work through them in order to take control of their own emotions. Do not allow them to be ruled by their fears.
Movies Let’s use common sense. Do not allow children to watch movies or hear stories that will cause their imaginations to run into wild and fearful places… and then put them to bed in a dark room! Help them to make wise choices by teaching them about irrational fears and how to regulate themselves in that regard.
I have a son who was very wise about what things he could handle and things he knew he would have to struggle with later. When he was very young, I told him to regulate his own fears by making good decisions about what he would watch and what he would walk away from. For instance, there is a scene in the Disney movie, Toy Story, where some toys are in a dark room and are misshaped, strange and creepy. They move around with scary music playing. This terrified my son.
I talked to him about how irrational this fear was, how the music caused it to seem scary when in reality, there were no toys at all, no room with them moving around, and toys can’t talk. He knew all that, but by talking it out, I made him realize he was allowing his emotions to overcome his reason. Yet, he still had fears.
He would sometimes come into my room at night to express he felt afraid. I would ask him about what he watched that day, or what he was thinking about. Then, I would remind him of this advice….
I told him to recognize that when he is starting to feel overcome with irrational fear…walk away from the source… such as a movie…and think about it how it isn’t real. I told him not to keep watching it, dwell on it and allow it to seep further into his mind, but instead make a decision not to watch something that would cause him to feel irrationally afraid. I also told him as he gets older, many of these irrational fears will go away as he has more life experience.
He took this to heart and many times if we were watching a movie like, Indiana Jones, he would walk away and not watch it if he started to be overcome by fears. Now that he is older, he is able to think through it better and has been able to take control of his emotions. These things still bother him, but he doesn’t allow it to overtake his mind.
If you haven’t read the blog post, “Teaching Social Skills”, it is time to do that. In this article, it explains how to help your child overcome the irrational fear of being in public or interacting with new people in their lives. We will talk about “stranger danger” later.
Basically, it is very important not to allow your child to learn that shyness is okay. Some children are naturally shy. This is something to be overcome and not something to use as an excuse not to engage in relationships with others.
Teach your child how to greet people in a formal way, shake hands, look people in the eye, how to carry on a conversation, etc. Do not allow their fear of people to keep them hiding behind your skirt. For more information, read the blog post suggested.
Now we will talk about some rational fears that can have an irrational application.
Bugs, snakes, spiders, water, thunder, dogs… I put all this in one category because these things can be both rational and irrational fears.
If you have more than one child, it is possible that you have a child who is an explorer and seems fearless at times, and another who is afraid of everything! Maybe you are afraid of snakes, spiders, mice, etc. You may even recognize your reaction to these natural wonders is not what it should be.
If you see a mouse run across the floor, do you ever show those classic cartoon mom signs of fear by jumping up on a table and screaming? And if you do… what does that teach your child?
Believe me, I was AMAZED at my reaction when a mouse was in my house years ago. The irrational fear was overwhelming! I was that cartoon mom! But then, I realized that I MUST overcome this and talk to my children about it. I told them my reaction was irrational. I needed to overcome it.
Help build your child’s curiosity by getting books and watching videos about the lives of natural creatures, especially the kind that bring an instant reaction to most wimpy moms like me! Let them explore and learn so when they see one, they are excited rather than afraid.
Remember, the answer to fear is information. The more information they have about those things that seems scary, the less they will feel out of control and the more confident they will be.
Part of the fear of nature is actually rational though, isn’t it? A spider or snake can bite, and that can be deadly. Dogs bite too. Cats scratch. A mouse can leave droppings full of bacteria that cause disease. What about water? People do drown. Thunder… it does damage homes and property at times… and in rare cases, people are struck by it.
Do we disregard these possibilities and not warn our children? And how can we do this without causing them to be full of fear?
This is the point at which we have to be honest with them and teach them to discern wisdom from irrational thought. Let them know these things happen, but that if you know what kind of snakes and spiders are of concern, why thunder is loud, etc, you will have the tools to deal with things reasonably.
Teach them not to approach a dog without the owner’s permission and why. That thunder is vibrations caused by electricity… and vibrations cause sound. The sound won’t hurt you even though it is loud. Etc. Give them information, and make them think through it.
I remember when I was a young child, my father wanted to teach me to ride a bike. I hated that. I didn’t want to learn because I was very afraid of falling. Each time he wanted to teach me, I was filled with fear. Yet, my father did not allow that to stop me from learning. Yes, I fell. Yes, that was unpleasant. But, I learned and was so happy I knew how to ride once I got through it.
What if my father had instead given in to my reluctance? What if he hadn’t insisted that I learn? Would that have been to my benefit? It certainly would have been easier on him, wouldn’t it? So why did he continue to insist? Because he loved me and he knew what was best for me! (Remember the three basics… I knew I was loved, I knew my father knew what was best for me, I knew he would do what it took so that what was best for me was done. Trust is the key.) Another time, I was required to teach a class to adults when I was about 11 years old. I was obviously overwhelmingly nervous. But, my father required me to study out the class with him, practice giving the class, and actually conduct the class with real adults listening! Why? Wouldn’t it have been easier for him to teach it himself? He taught classes all the time after all. Because he loved me. He knew that by exposing me to the “stage fright” I would experience, I would learn that it is okay. I can do it. I can overcome and I can stand up and talk in front of people. Throughout my life, this has benefitted me in school and in church and anywhere I go. I have the confidence to be in front of people without fear. It also taught me that the more prepared I was, the less nervous I would be!
The same goes with your children. You can help them overcome things by requiring them to have experiences that will grow their confidence even if they resist. Don’t give in to what is easiest for you. Think in the “mature parenting” way. (Mature parenting --- understanding how your present actions and words will affect your child’s distance future, and acting on that knowledge in a responsible way.) If they are afraid of dogs, expose them regularly to friendly dogs. If they are afraid of people, take them to playdates with new friends. If they are afraid of snakes, be sure they are able to see and pet snakes as much as you can. IF they are afraid of water, take them swimming and boating. Keep them exposed to those things that scare them irrationally so they will learn to overcome.
Satan, Occult, etc.
If you are a Christian, you know that Christ has all power. That Satan is subject to Him and that the devil cannot overcome Christ. Children have a natural understanding that something evil is scary. If they see an artful rendition of Satan with an evil look, horns and fire around him, they recognize something isn’t good about this. The only time a child normally accepts this kind of image without natural concern is if they are exposed to similar images on a regular basis. This could be considered the wrong kind of exposure therapy.
Help your child discern the beautiful nature God made from the evil dark images Satan promotes. Then, help them know what to do if they feel a fear of Satan or a bad spirit.
When I was a small child, I was afraid of evil spirits. My mother told me something that helped me through many times of fear. She said to repeat this phrase in my mind and even speak it when I needed to, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you have no power over me! Go away!” She explained that Satan cannot abide the name of Christ and His name has all power. I could just keep saying His name and if there was any kind of evil spirit, it would have to go.
As a young child lying in bed, I had all confidence that when I started to be afraid, I could say that phrase, even under my breath, and no evil spirit could stay there. It rescued me many times. Why did I have all confidence? Because my parents NEVER lied to me about anything. Ever. (Read, “Trust: Building a Relationship With Your Child”) I suggest you teach this to your children too so they know they have the power through Christ to overcome any spirit of fear that they may feel.
There is a phrase that has gone around for years as the standard for moms to teach their children. “Don’t talk to strangers.” I believe this is not enough information for a child to make a reasonable decision about what to do in various situations. We DO want our children to talk to strangers! Just not when they are alone or in a vulnerable position. We want them to be confident to shake the hand of a person they don’t know and introduce themselves. Look them in the eye. Carry on a conversation. So… “don’t talk to strangers” doesn’t really make much sense.
We have to teach our children that there are evil people in the world for their own safety. True. But we need to help them understand the whole picture. Most people are not evil, but evil people don’t look like a picture of Satan either. I knew a mom once who told her children all things scary. People kidnap children and kill them and she made sure they heard about every instance she could find. She wanted them to stay safe, so she put fear in them so they were afraid of every person they didn’t know. Their social skills were practically nil. They had a mistrust for just about everyone except their own family. This did not give them a discernment at all. It made everyone the enemy. Then again, not teaching them about the truths of evil people can make a child trust everyone when they shouldn’t.
Help them learn reasonable rules of safety by talking things out and practicing. They need to know what a “stranger” means. Talk to them about the people they know, that interact with their family vs. a person in a magazine, at the store they haven’t met, etc. Any person older than themselves who has not been introduced by a trusted adult is a stranger, even if they have seen them before. If they aren’t sure, tell them to consider them a stranger.
Here are the rules they need to know:
Never talk to a stranger when you are not with a trusted adult.
Never go to help a stranger with any task for any reason without a parent’s permission.
Immediately run away if someone you don’t know is trying to get you into a car and tell a trusted adult.
Never approach a car if a stranger tries to ask you a question. Stay away from the car and get an adult you know to answer them.
Do not believe a stranger who says they know your parents or family members.
Explain that these rules help keep them safe since people that are evil will present themselves as good. Since they are young, they cannot discern good from evil in people, so they must let you, as a parent, do that for them until they are grown.
Then, don’t leave your children in any situation where they would have to implement this. This should only be for the “just in case” scenario. Practice and role play with them so they will understand what you are talking about.
Give them plenty of experiences with lots of people. Point out things that are good and things that are not so good. Let them see there is good and bad in ALL people. You, as a mom, have flaws too! But some people allow their flaws to grow to the point that they become evil. This is what they must know.
Giving them balance is the way to help them go out into the world with confidence but the right amount of caution.
Balance is really the key word in just about all of child training, isn’t it? Moderation in all things is a good motto to keep in mind when raising children.
Moms, you can do this!
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