The first thing to do to help your child overcome their irrational fear is to accept their feelings as real and respond to them and be sensitive about it.
In the eyes of a child, the world can be a scary place. Young children are afraid of many things, and parents have a difficult time identifying and addressing them. Reassuring children of their safety is often a challenge too. For that, parents need to understand their children better and also know the reason for their insecurities. Primary school-age children's common fears could be both real and imaginary. It is natural for them to be afraid of things they do not understand or cannot control. Often children are insecure because they are still learning to cope with their feelings, as early as two to three years of age. As children grow, factors that trigger their fear also change.
“Can you please leave the lights on? Mommy, will you stay with me till I fall asleep?” I am sure most parents have faced such bedtime requests from their children. I am not sure how many parents have given a thought about the reason for their child’s request. Some parents might agree to their request, but at the same time might think their child is being difficult. Some parents might yell at their children for that. While others might worry about their child’s fear of darkness. According to experts, some degree of fear of the dark is natural, especially during a child’s development. There is nothing to worry about it.
Parents need to understand that fear of the dark is usually the fear of possible or imagined dangers concealed by the darkness and not of darkness itself. This fear seldom appears before the age of 2 and passes away as they grow older and develop a coping mechanism. I remember storytime with my sons before they went to bed 35 years ago. I usually had a low wattage light in their room. I did not know at the time that all these activities contributed towards making my children feel more secure and loved. Security is something children expect from their parents. To build this trust, parents need to spend more time with their children. Parents also need to better understand their children’s expectations, concerns, and insecurities.
Driving away the fears
Consider putting a lamp by their bedside so they can switch on the light themselves. Use a low wattage bulb in their room or let some light filter into their room from the hallway or other nearby sources, and establish an enjoyable bedtime routine. Predictable bedtime routines help reduce anxiety. Checking the room from their perspective, to see and remove a picture or toy that may cast a shadow or look creepy in the half-light, can help build some security in your child. Reassure them that they are safe; explain there are no such things as monsters. If your child is still afraid, ask him/her for suggestions on what would make them feel more secure. Offer suggestions like taking their favorite toys or special blanket to the bed. I still remember my younger son sleeping with my shawl that made him feel secure.
To understand your child's fear of the unknown, teach him/her to turn on lights around the house. Add a night-light to his/her bedroom. Let your child decide the amount of light they have on when they go to sleep and gradually decrease it over time. Help your child to understand the darkness. Go on night walks together and discuss all the new and different things you see when it is dark. Connected to this is their fear of monsters under their bed.
Fear of dark or monster under the bed may evolve to become fear of burglary or violence if not checked in time. Sometimes parents may not know that their actions sometimes are reasons for their children’s insecurity. Often to make our life easier, we scare our children to sleep saying, ‘fall asleep or something or someone will get you’. This does calm them for a moment, and they fall asleep, but it contributes towards making the child insecure and frightened of the dark.
Darkness and monsters under their bed are not the only things our children are afraid of. Many other factors trigger fear.
They are likely afraid of irrational fears like falling down the toilet or the drain, especially when the toilet/bathroom is not well lit. Their active imaginations and their inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy make them susceptible to believe in supernatural beings, like ghosts and monsters in the dark waiting to spring on them, once the light goes out. One of the fears at this point is also monsters under the bed. They think anything could be lurking under their bed and waiting to hurt them. We know there are no monsters, but it is no use telling them.
Young children have a vivid imagination, and that helps conjure monsters in the dark corners, shadows, clouds, or just about anywhere. One way to handle this is to take their concern seriously and help them prevent monsters from coming. Simple things like spraying their room with water in a spray bottle to make sure monsters don’t hurt your child, or even pasting signs like ‘monsters not allowed’ work with little children. Apart from this, children are also afraid of bad weather: thunderstorms, and strong winds. For children, loud thunder and howling winds are scary. They feel the need for their parents to feel protected. The best way to handle this is to help your child to understand the weather. For that playing outside in various conditions so that children can feel what it is like to feel rain or windy conditions will help. You can also make a weather chart for toddlers and young children to prepare according to the weather condition each day. This activity helps your children to manage their fear in this aspect. Often children are also afraid of bad dreams.
Often, children are afraid to go to bed, because they are afraid that they will have nightmares. Hence, they do not want to sleep alone. Bad dreams and nightmares are representatives of a child’s struggle with the distinction between reality and imagination. Young children are not able to complain about their bad dreams. Instead, they will show their distress through their behaviors. That includes frequent waking up, screaming or crying. They might even relate incoherent stories about their dreams or simply refuse to go to sleep. At this point, parents need to comfort, give them their favorite blanket or stuffed animal, and reassure that they are safe and that you are there to help. Apart from this, children are also scared of strangers.
When a child meets a stranger, his/her first thought is, ‘I don’t know who you are or what you want, so I want to stay close to my mother.’ According to doctors, fear of strangers is healthy. Parents need to understand that children should not go to people they don’t know. The only problem here is when your child is scared of family friends and relatives. Here again, parents need to understand and not push him/her to accept your decision of trust. Rather, let them gradually build their own trust towards your friends and relatives. Give them time to get to know the person before expecting him/her to interact and be friendly to them. If your child is shy, let your friends and relatives know that it might take some time for your child to feel friendly towards them. Another fear that your child might show is that of separation from you. They are worried that you might not return.
Fear of separation
It is normal for children to be scared of separation. Along with this, they are also afraid of being alone. Hence, it is always a good idea to establish a healthy goodbye routine each time you leave him/her. Young children are also afraid of masks, costumes, and mascots. This is also linked to feelings of insecurity and fear of the unknown. Make a habit of never forcing your child to interact with someone s/he feels uncomfortable with. Consider having people in costumes remove their masks to reassure him/her there is a friendly face under the mask. Apart from this, children are also afraid of doctors and dentists. This is also a fear of unknown and association of the location with pain. Parents' way out of this situation is to prepare their child in advance, for the type of procedures s/he will experience and offer a small reward for his/her cooperation with medical procedures. Don’t forget to congratulate your child on being brave and strong, once the doctor’s visit is over.
Let us accept that we all are afraid of one thing or another, regardless of how big we are or how brave we might be. Sometimes we forget that there are circumstances, both real and imaginary, that can make a child feel insecure. Even if your child does not have a problem with insecurity, you can still do your best to make sure that your child continues to feel secure as s/he grows. The first thing to do to help your child overcome their irrational fear is to accept their feelings as real and respond to them and be sensitive about it.
One thing is for sure, and that is making fun of the child, teasing them, or forcing them to confront their fear will only make things worse. Instead, take their fears seriously, and encourage them to talk about their feelings. Accept their feelings as real and respond to them sensitively. It is always a good idea to allow your child some control over matters. Also, tell them facts, and allow them to confront their fears, at their own pace with your support, one step at a time. Make them comfortable talking about issues that are bothering them. This helps a lot in fear management. I still remember my youngest son checking the doors before going to sleep as a child.
Finally, the parents and caregivers need to pay closer attention to the way they talk to and behave with their child, especially when the child is feeling uneasy, unsure, or scared. Next time you come across scared children do not ridicule or make fun of them. Chances are they are trying to cover up their insecurity. Be more sensitive to children's hidden fears and insecurities and help them overcome these feelings with a little understanding and compassion. Now that is not very difficult. Right parents?
Usha Pokharel is an educationist and author of several children’s books