Young children have more anxiety, fears and phobias than adults and their experiences are more intense
Its bedtime, but your little one is too excited to sleep. You are tired and desperately want to rest. You tried to calm him/her, patting them, cuddling them and telling them stories in vain. So you take the shortcut and tell your child, “if you don’t sleep now, I will call the big, fat, black ‘jogi’ with long hair, mustache and beard, who came the other day at our door asking for some food.” In all this you try to be as vivid as possible till the child gets the picture, becomes scared and says, “No,” calms down, starts crying, sticks to you, and soon falls asleep. I have seen mothers use such ‘fear factor’, to their advantage, time and again.
To a large extent it works, but there are some drawbacks. Children have vivid imaginations, and sometimes, they believe to be real what they imagine. This fear may become a problem for parents later. Life becomes a bit comfortable at the moment, but parents fail to understand, that such tactics will instill a component of fear in their child. They will have to spend more time and energy to overcome this very fear they instilled.
Just the word ‘fear’ makes me uncomfortable, because I understand the meaning of the word. Young children do not understand ‘fear’, but they show all the symptoms associated with it. Infants feel comfortable only with their mother. Separate them from their mother and they will become anxious and start crying. A human childhood is quite long and during that time, one experiences many manifestations of anxiety and fear. Fear is quite common while children grow. Feeling anxious, in particularly uncomfortable situations, never feels good. It’s not just children, we all have experienced ‘fear and anxieties’ at one time or another. However, with kids, such feelings are not only normal, they’re also necessary for their healthy growth. You must be thinking, ‘we understand fear, but what about anxiety?’
According to the dictionary ‘anxiety’ is “uneasiness without evident cause.” Usually occurring when there’s no immediate threat to a person’s safety or wellbeing, but the threat feels very much real leading to the fear of unknown. Anxiety often leads to fear. It makes someone want to escape the situation really fast. The heart beat increases and body starts perspire often accompanied by “butterflies” in the stomach. Sometimes anxiety can be a positive emotion and help people stay alert and focused if one can get over the “what if I fail” syndrome. Then again experiencing too much anxiety or nervousness, at inappropriate times, can be extremely distressing and interfering. Anxiety can pass easily from one person to another. I am sure some of you must have noticed that sometimes when you are about to leave your toddler at his/her school gate, suddenly another child starts crying and clinging to their parent, and then you find your child also behaving similarly. You think your child is crazy, but this is separation anxiety at work.
As children grow, you never know when one fear ends and another starts. A five-year old child having difficulty sleeping in the dark may enjoy a ghost story in later years, you never know. Adolescents may experience anxiety related to social acceptance and academic achievement. You must have noticed that young children have more anxiety, fears and phobias than adults, and their experiences are more intense. At this point you are wondering, ‘what can we do to help our children?’
First of all make sure your child’s fear is age appropriate. If it is, then those fears will wane away with age. If these are resulting from your child’s everyday activities, make adjustments to get rid of the stress factors. Help your children develop confidence and coping skills, before fears become phobias. Start with recognizing your child’s fear as real, even if it is trivial, because it is stressing your child. But always keep in mind that there is a fine line between pretending to look for monsters yourself, and showing your child there are no monsters. Talk about their fear and explain to them that key to getting over fear and anxiety is to overcome them. Answer their questions about things they fear. While you are at it, try to understand and not make fun of their fear, belittle it or force children to overcome it either.
It is entirely possible that your response of ‘don’t be ridiculous, there are no monsters in your closet’ will get your child to go to bed, but their fear will not go away. It’s always a good idea to teach your children to rate their fears.
Visualizing the intensity of the fear on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the strongest, might help your older children to “see” the fear as less intense than they first imagined. Little children will appreciate more fun way of rating their fears. Something like showing their ‘full of fear’ with either ‘full’ being ‘up to my knees’ as not very scared or ‘up to my stomach’ for more frightened and ‘over my head’ as very scared, because they can visualize that.
This also helps them to realize the relativeness of being afraid. Have you noticed, for your children, you are their pillar of comfort? They run to you when they are scared. Hide in your aanchal refusing to get out at all. They will venture towards the feared object always to return to you for comfort and safety before venturing out again. Let children learn positive statements: “I can do this’ ‘and I will be ok’ to themselves when feeling anxious or afraid. Teach them relaxation techniques: imagining floating on a cloud or sitting beside rivers. Looking at cloud formation in the sky was my favorite stress buster as a child.
Finally, it is always better to allow children to observe their object of fear from the place they feel secure: from behind your aanchal. Having their favorite toy or even their mother’s shawl will give them the sense of security and the confidence to fall asleep at night. Be their role model and remain calm and confident in situations that are frightening your child. Remember that children learn fears from parents and if you show fear and anxiety, your child may pick it up. Childhood fears are not much different than adult anxiety and fears. Having said so, there is always a remote possibility of your child having a medical condition. If you observe anything unusual and cannot handle the situation, get in touch with family doctor. Now that sounds more reasonable, right?
The author is an educationist and author of several children’s books