Parenting: Kids and Fear

David Murphy and his son conquer the Empire State Building.

March 2, 2011 6:19:04 AM PST
The Murphy kids, like all others, had to confront various fears. Dealing correctly with a child's concern can help them grow out of it at a normal, natural pace.

It's common for kids to be afraid. When I was young, I insisted on sleeping with a night light. I don't recall being too worried about monsters under the bed, but there was something I didn't like about total darkness, and the light was reassuring. Luckily, my parents did not make a big deal out of it. The result? I no longer sleep with a night light and, in fact, dropped the habit in short order after age and experience kicked-in.

Fear of the dark, fear of falling, fear of bugs, loud machines and even alien abduction all make sense to a kid who lacks the experience to know better. Author and family counselor Ronit Baras has a great article on the subject that covers children's fears, their normality, and how best to approach the issue when it comes up.

Don't shove fear under the rug

Baras says the main problem is that kids are sometimes not taken seriously when they express a fear. A parent's natural reaction may be to ignore the issue and hope it goes away. Baras says this can actually make it worse. She maintains that in the worst cases, fear "can get out of proportion and lead to growing up with anxiety, panic attacks and depression."

Many kids' fears are the result of inexperience. As a child grows older and learns more about how the world works, he or she can make more sense of things, and the more they understand, the less there is to fear. A fear of monsters in the dark, for example, can be treated with gentle reassurance, followed by exposure to a kid's book about funny monsters.

Watch what they watch

Baras also suggests limiting a young child's exposure to scary movies or other media until they are old enough to grasp the difference between what's real and imagined. Childhood is pretty short, when you think about it, and it doesn't take long once your child is exposed to other kids in school to begin learning the hard truths about how things like relationships and bullying work. Why burst their bubble too soon by shocking them with scary or hard-to-comprehend images they can't yet understand.

Taking the time to reassure your kids and to present yourself as a strong, unafraid, calming influence is also a great idea. The first time I took my son up the Empire State Building, I held him tight, and talked gently about the coolness of the experience, and how great it was to be able to go up so high and see so much. This wasn't a bad approach, I think, as opposed to just shoving him out onto the observation deck with no hand to hold, left to discover that, "Holy cow, it's a long way down there, dad!?!"

The bottom line? Take a kid's fear seriously. Respond gently and reassuringly, and try not to worry about it too much. Most kids grow out of the night light on their own, once they grow old enough to understand the world and grow stronger in their own sense of worth and ability.

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