More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Scare Tactics
Wendy Haaf

A look at what scares kids and how you can help children face what frightens them.

From the twirling teacup ride to a tramway tête-à-tête with a tiaraed Miss Georgia, daughter number one (then an easygoing ten-month-old) cheerfully endured a trip to Disneyland — until Chip the chipmunk walked up and waved. The costumed person hastily retreated from ear-splitting wails of terror. Six months later, we fled the big top when she got her first glimpse of a clown.

Parents are puzzled when kids are frightened by things that don’t seem threatening, but many childhood fears make sense when you look at the world from a child’s perspective. And fear is nothing to be afraid of: That feeling can help your child steer clear of danger, and learning to face it can foster self-confidence. Here’s a look at what scares kids and how you can help.

Separation, Strangers
Appears: around seven months
Duration: until about age three
Fear factors: Until recently, your baby couldn’t hold a picture of you in his head unless he could see you. Now that he can, he worries you won’t come back when you’re away. Strangers also make him feel uneasy, since he’s not sure what to expect from someone outside the circle of people who love and care for him.
Coping strategies: Velcro syndrome actually signals a close, healthy bond, but you can’t handcuff yourself to your baby 24/7, even if you’re a stay-at-home parent. Marc Lewis, a professor of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto, recommends not scheduling any major changes (such as starting daycare) between eight and 11 months, when separation and stranger anxiety peak. Sticking to a routine and establishing a goodbye ritual — like a kiss and wave bye-bye — ease uncertainty by making your child’s world more predictable for him.

Toilets, Drains, Bathtubs
Appears: around age two
Duration: usually a few months
Fear factors: Some toddlers are terrified of being sucked down the drain or believe they’re losing a part of themselves when they poop, explains Toronto psychological associate and Today’s Parent columnist Janet Morrison.
Coping strategies: Consider switching to a potty until your child outgrows his fear, or distract him and keep him company by reading stories together while he’s in the washroom. If the tub is the issue, try bath paints or toys to entice a toddler into the water; if he doesn’t like getting his head wet, try letting him do it himself. When all else fails, simply get the job done as swiftly and reassuringly as possible.

Masks, Clowns, Costumes
Appears: as early as eight months
Duration: can last two years
Fear factors: Young kids don’t understand the concept of costumes and masks, so a costumed Mickey Mouse seems like a real, six-foot-tall rodent. Plus, what adults consider cute is culturally driven, so before children acquire those values, clowns can look like monsters, and a cartoon character’s face may appear menacing.
Coping strategies: Respect your child’s apprehension: Don’t push her to approach someone she doesn’t know.

The Dark, Monsters
Appears: around age 3½
Duration: can last until age six
Fear factors: In the preschool years, a child’s imagination takes flight, and he’s still sorting out what’s real and what’s fantasy. Thoughts of witches, monsters and the bogeyman are more vivid at night, without the distractions of daytime.
Coping strategies: While you can try explaining monsters aren’t real, many kids this age are too young to respond to reason, so simply reassuring him that you’ll keep him safe may be more effective. Luc Morin, a psychiatrist at Douglas Hospital in Verdun, Que., notes that leaving the door ajar with the hall light on sometimes helps, as does a nightlight or giving your child his own flashlight to keep by his bed. You may also be able to enlist your child’s imagination in fighting his fears by offering a good luck charm to keep monsters at bay. And monitor his choice of TV shows and movies: Certain kids are especially susceptible to scary stories.

Animals, Bugs
Appears: any age
Duration: one or two years
Fear factors: While this type of fear can crop up when a child is unfamiliar with a particular creature, it’s more often a result of an unpleasant encounter, like being stung by a bee.
Coping strategies: Gradually introducing your child to the critter in question usually does the trick. For example, if your child is afraid of dogs, start by reading books and watching movies about dogs before making an arm’s-length visit to a friend’s docile canine. Reflect on your own reactions: If you gasp at the sight of snakes, you may unwittingly pass that fear on to your child.

Not Measuring Up
Appears: about age five or six
Duration: varies
Fear factors: When kids start school, they become aware of how their own strengths and weaknesses compare with those of others. Some children may be afraid of a teacher’s reaction when they don’t complete an assignment or do a good job.
Coping strategies: Remind your child that you love her no matter what grades she gets, and compliment her for making an honest effort. However, Morrison reminds parents that “kids need reassurance, but they also need real skills,” so if yours continues to lag behind the rest of her class, ensure she gets extra help.

Sometimes parents project their own feelings onto their offspring, so maybe it’s you who’s worried your daughter won’t measure up to her peers. Step back and ask yourself whether you could inadvertently be making matters worse by pressuring her. If your child seems to be struggling with low self-esteem, help her find areas where she can develop a sense of mastery and confidence, and remember to take a minute to point out what she’s doing right. (“It was kind of you to help your sister without being asked.”)

Storms, Fires, Disasters
Appears: around age six
Duration: can linger until age 12
Fear factors: As children learn about the scary things that can happen in the world, they may worry such things will happen to them.
Coping strategies: Combat fear with information. If your child is afraid your house will catch fire, tell him what you’re doing to prevent that (not leaving burning candles unattended, installing smoke alarms, etc.). Then calmly explain what to do in case of fire, such as how to get out of the house, where to go for help and how to call the fire department. (In fact, why not hold a family meeting to go over fire safety and your escape plans? The review would do you all good.) For fears like earthquakes, terrorism, kidnapping and other stuff kids hear on the news, stress how unlikely it is that these events will strike your family.

Appears: around age 12
Duration: until mid to late teens
Fear factors: We all need love and acceptance, but fitting in is particularly important in adolescence as kids start exploring their own identities.
Coping strategies: Apart from allowing your teen to choose some of her own clothes, and talking to your doctor about treatments if your child suffers from adolescent acne (which can scar the psyche as well as the skin), there may not be much you can do to ease your child’s pain when she’s having a hard time socially. However, you can lend an ear when she wants to vent about how she’s being treated at school, and offer your own faith that she’s a worthy friend and she’ll get through this bumpy patch.

Appears: often arises when a pet or relative dies
Duration: While this is the primal fear (many adults grapple with it in the still hours of the night), intense anxiety should ebb as the child works his way through mourning.
Fear factors: Long before the “whoa, this means me” epiphany, kids may be afraid of losing a parent or best friend, or developing an illness that claimed the life of a loved one.
Coping strategies: Regardless of your spiritual perspective, it’s important to acknowledge your child’s fears and keep an open dialogue, even when you don’t have any answers or the subject makes you uncomfortable.

Ask your child what he’s worried about and listen closely. “Many parents rush in with answers and never get the question right,” says Morrison. Younger children may actually be worried about whether grandma feels cold down in the ground, or who’s going to feed her. If your child is terrified you’re going to die and leave him alone, reassure him you’ll probably live until long after he reaches adulthood, and that in the unlikely event you don’t, the people he loves will look after him. If your child is anxious about getting cancer like Auntie Debbie, emphasize that kids rarely come down with life-threatening illnesses, and that you and your doctor are doing all you can to keep him healthy.

When Fear Goes Too Far
While a little parental patience and understanding are usually all that’s needed to help kids conquer their fears, occasionally intense or long-standing worries signal more serious problems, such as a deeper fear that a child can’t express or an anxiety disorder. How can you tell what’s normal and what’s not?

According to Today’s Parent columnist Janet Morrison, the key is how the fear affects the rest of your child’s life. If he’s otherwise happy and healthy, then the situation will probably remedy itself. However, if worries interfere with normal activities, or they’re accompanied by symptoms like headaches, difficulty concentrating or changes in eating or sleeping habits, talk to your doctor. She can help decide whether your child needs extra guidance, and can refer you to a psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker, or therapist.

Afraid Not: What parents can do

Ask. Ajax, Ont., psychologist Jon Mills suggests asking kids questions like “How do you feel?” and “What makes you think that way?” “You have to explore the child’s experience,” he says, “then offer some reassurance or help him find some coping mechanism.”

Acknowledge, don’t dismiss. Kids need to know that it’s OK to be afraid — criticism can hurt by making them feel embarrassed and ashamed. So instead of saying, “That’s silly,” or “Big girls aren’t afraid of spiders,” try “I know you feel scared, but that spider can’t hurt you.”

Avoid fostering fear. Lavish your child with hugs, cuddles and other expressions of affection all the time, not just when he’s scared.

Act matter-of-fact. While pushing a timid or sensitive child into a feared situation can backfire by making her more stressed and anxious, if she’s afraid of doing something necessary (like taking a bath or visiting the dentist), offer empathy, but don’t overdo it. “This transmits the message that the fear cannot be that deadly since the parent is not overly concerned,” notes Luc Morin, a physician in the division of child psychiatry at Douglas Hospital in Verdun, Que.

Teach techniques. Taking deep breaths can calm the body’s response to fear. For older kids, distraction techniques such as listening to music, making mental lists of favourite activities or counting can help drown out disturbing thoughts.
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