"My child has nightmares and complains about monsters in his room. He seems so fragile compared to other children his age. He's afraid to leave my side. This doesn't seem normal to me."
Understanding Your Child, Yourself, and the Situation
A bruised knee can mend, but bruised courage lasts a lifetime. [Rudolf Dreikurs and Vicki Soltz. Children: The Challenge (New York: Hawthorn/Dutton, 1964), 36.
Sometimes children have fears because we don't help them deal with the unknown by showing them how to do things in small steps. Most of us have some fears, but they become bigger when others make fun of us, call us babies, or tell us that it's not okay to be scared or to cry.
Fear is usually about the unknown, although children have good reason to be afraid at other times. It's not our job to protect children from every discomfort in life. If we do, they don't develop the confidence that they can handle some discomfort. If they have been abused, molested, or hurt in some way, their fears are healthy and justified. Then it is our job to do what we can to eliminate the scary situation from their lives.
- Don't laugh at, minimize, judge, or discount your children's fears.
- Listen when your children tell you what they are afraid of. Verify their feelings, such as saying, "You're afraid of dogs because they might bite you, and you wish the dog would go away and leave you alone." Sometimes, just having their feelings validated is enough to lessen the fear.
- Help your children find ways to handle situations when they are afraid. Help them explore several possibilities so your children feel they have some choices. You might ask, "What would help you the most right now? A flashlight, a teddy bear, a nightlight?" Telling them not to be afraid isn't helpful; looking for solutions is.
- Don't be manipulated by your children's fears. Offer comfort, but don't give them special service or try to fix their feelings for them. It is important for children to learn that they can handle their fears, even though it is uncomfortable. Help them problem solve (as above) so they learn they can handle their fears themselves. Letting children sleep with you when they are afraid is a subtle way of saying, "You can't handle this. Let me fix it for you."
- Encourage your child to deal with difficult situations in small steps. If he is afraid of the dark, put in a night light. If he doesn't think he can sleep in his own room, fill his hand with your kisses and tell him every time he misses you to open his hand and take out a kiss. If he thinks there are monsters in the closet or under the bed, do a search with him before bedtime and let him sleep with a flashlight.
- Listen carefully. Are your children trying to tell you that someone is hurting them or that you are doing something that is frightening them? Take what they say seriously.
- Sometimes children's fears are irrational and they can't explain them. They may need your support and reassurance until the fear goes away. This may be time consuming on your part, and that is what parenting is about. (See the second booster thought below.)
Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Problems
- There are many wonderful children's books dealing with fears that you can read with your children so they can see they aren't alone.
- If there is a scary show on television or a scary movie, discuss ahead of time with your child whether it is a good idea for him to see it. If you both agree he is ready to watch, discuss how you can be supportive. (See Booster Thought)
- Don't lay your fears on your children. If your children decide they are ready to try something, work with them in small steps to make it safe and then let go instead of stopping them from doing things you are afraid of yourself. It's okay to share your fears, but don't expect your children to have the same ones you do. Telling your children about a fear that you conquered may be comforting to them. It will assure them that fears are normal.
- Ask your children if they would be willing to try out scary things two to three times before deciding against them.
Life Skills Children Can Learn
Children can learn that it's okay to feel fear, but they don't have to be immobilized by it. There is someone who will take them seriously and help them deal with their fears so they aren't so overwhelming. They can handle difficult situations and go to their parents for comfort.
If your children are afraid to leave your side, spend time with them, but also create situations where they can be away from you for short times. Many a preschool teacher has had to pull clinging, screaming children off their parents' legs. Minutes later, with the parents gone, the children have settled in and are happily playing with the other children.
Don't force your children into situations that are overwhelming to them just so they will be brave. Some children learn by jumping into the pool, and others watch from the sidelines for a summer before they put their faces in the water. Respect their differences and have faith.
Ten-year-old Lisa decided she wanted to watch Halloween III, an extremely scary movie. Her parents said they thought the movie was too scary, but she insisted on watching it. No one in her family wanted to watch the movie with her, so Lisa decided she would watch it by herself. Her parents said they would be in the next room, and if she got scared, she could come in for reassurance. Lisa's mother made her a bowl of popcorn, and her father helped her carry in her stuffed animals and special quilt. He turned on all the lights at Lisa's request and left the room as the movie began.
About ten minutes later, Lisa came into the living room and said, "I'm really not in the mood to watch that movie tonight. Maybe I'll watch it another time." Some children do what they really don't want to do so they can win the power struggle with their parents. Lisa's parents supported her to learn for herself how much she could handle.
Six-year-old Jane became fearful in her first grade class. She developed the irrational fear that the doors and windows would lock and she wouldn't be able to get out. Periodically she would look at the windows and the door and start to cry. The teacher couldn't understand why she was crying and would get exasperated. The teacher tried sitting her on her lap and called her a baby. Jane cried louder. The teacher put her out in the hall. Jane cried for awhile and then left the building. The principal saw her and told her she had to go back into class. Jane started crying and refused. The principal picked her up and carried her (kicking and screaming) back into the class. Jane cried so loudly that the principal had to come get her and take her to his office until it was time to go home.
The next day Jane's mother helped her pick a rose from their garden to take to the teacher. Then Mom went to school with her and sat in the classroom all day. Jane felt comforted that her mother was there and didn't experience any fear. She enjoyed her day in school. From then on she went to school and didn't experience any more fear about being locked in.
These articles are an excerpt from the book Positive Discipline A-Z by Jane Nelsen, Lynn Lott and H. Stephen Glenn.