Viet Nam News
Everyone, from the youngest child to the oldest adult, experiences fear at one time or another. Being anxious and frightened never feels good. But for kids, such feelings are normal and necessary. Laetitia Bluteau, Family Medical Practice Hanoi’s pediatric psychologist, discusses how to help children deal with childhood fears.
Fear, joy, sadness and anger are emotions we all feel starting in childhood.
There is an automatic brain response activated when a situation is interpreted as dangerous. Fear is accompanied by physical sensations such as rapid breathing and heartbeat, sweaty palms, dilated pupils, tense muscles, stomachache, dry mouth, nausea or shaking movements.
Whatever the origin of the fear, a child needs to be supported by an adult. When a child is afraid, the child is expressing a need for reassurance and attachment. Even if the stated cause of the fear seems wacky, silly, or crazy, parents should always believe a child who says is frightened. It is inappropriate to make fun of fears or to minimize them. Forcing a child to face a fear before the child is ready is harmful.
Defining childhood fears
So-called "traditional" childhood fears are linked to developmental milestones: such as fear of the dark, fear of separation, fear of monsters, and fear of noises. These fears are transient and may disappear and reappear during the child’s development, depending on life experiences. For example, a preschool child attending a new school might develop a fear of monsters or dinosaurs before going to bed. While this fear remains strong, bedtime rituals might seem endless.
On the other hand, some fears are not linked to experience but result from the brain’s evolution. For example, it’s very common to have fun in the sea with a 2 year old and to see the same child one year later extremely scared about being bitten by a shark.
There are also fears which result from experiences: “I’m afraid to go to the dentist because I remember it was unpleasant last time”. Or: "I read a book in which a little rabbit was afraid of the dentist, so the dentist must be scary!"
Be careful. The movies, cartoons and books your children are exposed to might feature overly violent images that can be overwhelming for the young.
If a child goes through a traumatic experience, he might manifest fear in similar situations in the future. For example, after falling off a horse, a child may be frightened at the sight of horses, even in photos. His internal sense of security might be damaged and, as a result, the child might be afraid of many different things.
Soothing your child
1) Listen compassionately. Make yourself accessible. Let children say what they feel, without judging, interrupting or trying to reason with them. Instead, validate children’s emotions and allow them to cry. It is always better to name the emotions and to ask details about what your child feels, rather than to deny the feelings or to say “don’t worry, this is nothing”.
2) Be physically reassuring. When children express fears, you can watch with love, take their hands, touch a shoulder, try to keep physical contact. Then take the child in your arms and share your loving presence, a kiss, a cuddle.
3) Reassure a frightened child by giving simple, rational answers:
"You’re afraid to go to school because you will not see Mom and Dad all day. Even if we are not together, we both think of you and we are happy because we know we will be together at the end of the day."
"You’re scared before falling asleep because at your age, your imagination is boundless and you see monsters."
“There are no sharks on the beach.”
"Look, the dinosaur you see is actually the shadow of your chair."
To move forward, you can demonstrate the principle of shadow puppetry.
4) Play together!
Play is good for all children, especially those experiencing anxiety. You can role play to create a game about your child’s fear and laugh about it to release the tension.You can also let the child draw the monsters that frighten him, then give the monsters all ridiculous attributes (a red nose, lipstick, a little dress, firefighter hat, etc.). All this must be done very gently and respectfully.
5) Encourage children to find solutions.
Whether it’s fear of failing to make friends in a new school or fear of witches, let the child list all solutions, without judging them. This may ease fears. If children need help to do this, guide them and give them options: “What could you do to be less afraid at night? Would you like to have a flashlight?"
Give the child an object that belongs to you to help reassure your child.
Seeking professional help
Your child’s worries are cause for concern if they develop into severe anxiety and interfere with healthy development. When parents feel helpless, it is probably time to see a therapist who will help you understand the cause and give you tools to reduce anxiety. In all cases, be patient and listen. This is the best way to help a child grow and to develop healthy self-confidence! — FAMILY MEDICAL PRACTICE HANOI
Laetitia Bluteau is a Clinical psychologist trained in France, able to work with mother-baby dyads, teenagers, children and adults, dealing with different issues such as violence, anxiety, self-esteem, trauma, phobias, etc. She also provides psychological assesments and parenting consultations.