Everyone experiences anxieties and fears at one time or another. Feeling anxious in a particularly uncomfortable situation never feels very good. However, with kids, such feelings are not only normal, they're also necessary. Dealing with anxieties can prepare young people to handle the unsettling experiences and challenging situations of life.
Many anxieties and fears are normal
Anxiety makes you want to escape a situation – fast. The heart beats quickly, the body begins to perspire, and "butterflies" in the stomach soon follow. However, a little bit of anxiety can actually help people stay alert and focused.
Having fears or anxieties about certain things can also be helpful because it makes kids behave in a safe way. For example, a kid with a fear of fire would avoid playing with matches.
As kids grow, one fear may disappear or replace another. For example, a child who couldn't sleep with the light off at age 5, may enjoy a ghost story at a slumber party years later. And some fears may extend only to one particular kind of stimulus. In other words, a child may want to pet a lion at the zoo, but wouldn't dream of going near the neighbor's dog.
While anxieties and fears can be normal, problems can arise if anxieties and fears persist. As much as a parent hopes the child will grow out of it, sometimes the opposite occurs, and the cause of the anxiety looms larger and becomes more prevalent. The anxiety becomes a phobia – a fear that's extreme, severe and persistent.
A phobia can be very difficult to tolerate, both for kids and those around them, especially if whatever is causing the anxiety is hard to avoid (for example, thunderstorms). The good news is that unless the phobia hinders the everyday ability to function, the child sometimes won't need treatment by a professional because, in time, the phobia will be resolved.
Helping your child
Parents can help kids develop the skills and confidence to overcome fears so that they don't evolve into phobic reactions.
To help your child deal with fears and anxieties:
- Recognize that the fear is real. As trivial as a fear may seem, it feels real to your child and it's causing him or her to feel anxious and afraid. Being able to talk about fears helps – words often take some of the power out of the negative feeling. If you talk about it, it can become less powerful.
- Never belittle the fear as a way of forcing your child to overcome it. Saying, “Don't be ridiculous! There are no monsters in your closet!” may get your child to go to bed, but it won't make the fear go away.
- Don't cater to fears, though. If your child doesn't like dogs, don't cross the street deliberately to avoid one. This will just reinforce that dogs should be feared and avoided. Provide support and gentle care as you approach the feared object or situation with your child.
- Teach kids how to rate fear. A child who can visualize the intensity of the fear on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the strongest, may be able to "see" the fear as less intense than first imagined. Younger kids can think about how “full of fear” they are, with being full “up to my knees” as not so scared, “up to my stomach” as more frightened, and “up to my head” as truly petrified.
The key to resolving fears and anxieties is to overcome them. Using these suggestions, you can help your child better cope with life's situations. If you have questions about your child's emotional well-being, click here to make an appointment with a skilled pediatric provider at The Medical Center of Aurora.