Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Responding to Children's Fears

As new parents, most moms and dads dream about their beautiful, healthy babies growing to become happy, well-adjusted human beings. What they don't expect are the challenges that some children may encounter, including something as common as fear. If you have ever had to deal with a fearful child, you know this can be difficult to deal with.

What factors contribute to children’s early fears? According to the North Dakota State University Extension faculty, two key factors are the child’s maturity level and emotional susceptibility. As a child grows, different fears may be noticed at different times. For example, fear of strangers declines as a fear of monsters rises. A two-year-old may fear the dark, a bath, loud noises, animals or separation. Four-year-olds may add the fear of death, while a school-aged child’s number one fear is that of losing a parent.

Researchers also distinguish between “fluid” and “fixed” fears. A fluid fear is one that comes and goes. Fluid fears are usually considered normal. It may be a fear that changes from week to week or persists for a limited period and begins to fade away. A fixed fear is one that lingers or intensifies. Fixed fears may require a lot of patience to work through.

Parents can help children understand fear by validating the child’s feelings and openly discussing their fears. Set the tone with honesty and allow the child to express his or her feelings. Help children to realize that some fears are real and sensible such as fear of heights or dark streets. Others just appear real. Help them understand the difference between real and fantasy with patience, gentleness and open communication.

Author and researcher Laura Berk (Development through the Lifespan, 3rd Edition, 2004 Boston: Allyn & Bacon) suggests that to help a child manage fear parents should reduce the child’s exposure to frightening stories in books and television until the child is best able to distinguish appearance from reality.