New experiences such as preschool, birthday parties, and playdates are fun and exciting for most children. However, for some, the unknown produces anxiety. As parents, sometimes we laugh at the thought of being afraid to go to a birthday party or social event, because to us it seems like it should be an exciting event! When we laugh at our child’s fear(s) and force them through it (because to us it’s irrational) we think we are helping by “making them tough”. However, we are actually shaming him/her and inadvertently saying, “Having fears isn’t acceptable”. This can lead to improper coping skills, avoidance, and anxiety due to bottled up fears, thoughts, and emotions. Here are some tips on how to properly respond to your child’s fear(s) that will help him/her feel supported and properly learn how to cope.
Validation is showing that you hear, understand, and accept one’s thoughts and emotions. It helps others feel supported, comfortable, and calm. Many parents think that validating their child’s fears doesn’t teach them resilience. I am here to tell you this isn’t true! Validation helps increase confidence and self-esteem, which shaming and dismissing deplete. Furthermore, your child will feel as if they can trust you, which makes them feel safe. Lastly, validation normalizes fears, which will help prevent your child from feeling shame and avoiding them. Overall, it is a simple, and powerful tool to use. Validation will help motivate your child to use coping skills and face his/her fears in due time.
Normalizing fear as an emotion
Showing your child that it is normal to feel fearful will assist them in not burying and avoiding the emotion, which can lead to anxiety. The anxiety can lead to temper tantrums, irritability, and oppositional behaviors that no parent enjoys dealing with. You can normalize fear by saying, “it’s okay to be scared, I get scared too sometimes”, or: “You’ve never been to __________. Of course you’re worried about what it will be like.” Most likely, your child isn’t afraid of the event itself, but instead worried about the “what ifs”- what if I won’t know what to do, what if I can’t find the bathroom, what if I don’t like the food, etc. There are plenty of times in life when those fears are valid, which is why it is important to normalize feeling fearful.
Be positive- talk about how your child is safe
Being positive doesn’t mean dismissing! There is a difference between saying, “But you’re safe! What could possibly happen at the birthday party?” and “I understand that you’re afraid, it’s okay to feel that way. Can I share with you why I feel safe?”
The first response, even though it has great intentions, is dismissive of your child’s emotion- fear. They are saying, “I feel afraid” and from your response they are hearing (and internalizing) “No, that’s wrong, you shouldn’t feel that way”.
In the second response you are validating that your child feels afraid, while sharing that you don’t. This will help them feel relaxed, rather than ashamed. They will also learn an excellent skill- that it’s okay to have feelings different from someone else! They are learning that it is okay to be afraid while realizing that they might not need to feel that way. Showing them that reality might be different from their perception will help them learn when to appropriately feel fear.
Teach them how to cope by sharing how you do
As your child is reacting to this fear it is a great opportunity to teach them how to cope with this emotion. Share with your child how they can help themselves in the moment by sharing how you do. For example, “I understand that you’re afraid. When I feel afraid I like to close my eyes and listen to my breaths. Can we try that together right now to help you feel better?” When we feel fear, at times we get paralyzed. Your child may not know how to help him/herself in that moment, or he/she might be too paralyzed to take action. Assisting them by giving suggestions is helpful either way. Doing the activity with them will help them learn how to properly and effectively do it.
Using all of these tips will help your child be able to appropriately, effectively, and healthily manage their fears. I realize that as parents, it is not always easy to have sensitivity and patience to every thing our children do and feel. Here are some reminders to use when struggling with being patient and sensitive.
–helping your child verbalize his/her thoughts and emotions
–showing them it is okay to feel negative emotions rather than avoiding or running from them
–teaching your child how to cope, which will help them now and in the future
–creating a bonding experience with them
–preventing future meltdowns that will negatively affect your mood
–helping your child become a healthier individual
–and teaching them resilience!
Our child and family therapists can work with you to identify what’s causing these fears and develop strategies to help your child overcome them.