Most of us can remember having a childhood fear. For some of us it may have been clowns, performing in the school play, taking tests, or of the dark. We were all afraid of something. Some of us still flick on the lights before we enter a dark room, even as adults. I can still remember the things I was afraid of as a kid. The bathroom, clowns, and spiders to name a few, and how these simple, harmless things felt traumatizing.
I try my best to raise my own daughters to be fearless. While I don’t push them to do things that they are afraid of, I strive to teach them how to be brave. When my 9-year-old was afraid of falling from her bike, I showed her that with the right protective gear, falling can be painless and not so scary. Or when my 4-year-old was afraid of the nighttime. I showed her that the frightening things that she saw in the dark were just shadows from ordinary things. That we can make shadows too, like bunnies and birds with our hands.
Previously, I have been able to brush past their fears and anxieties with ease. Until recently I met my match. My daughters had watched a seemingly innocent cartoon together on YouTube. The episode featured zombies and the zombie apocalypse. The main characters were oblivious to the end of the world scene around them. They would cunningly avoid being attacked or eaten. It had a happy ending where the characters realized what was happening and saved the day- with none of them being harmed or maimed throughout the episode. My daughter went back to playing after watching the cartoon and was seemingly unaffected by it. In fact it had seemed like she had actually enjoyed it.
It wasn’t until hours later, when I was running down to the store that I realized something was wrong. My daughter was begging me not to leave her, despite her Grandmother and two sisters being in the house. This is something she has never done before. Eventually, I gave in and took her with me even though it was late at night. She clung to my hand the entire time. Once we were outside she checked that the coast was clear before finally revealing to me what was bothering her. Zombies.
The Wrong Way
I knew at that point I had messed up by letting her watch that cartoon. She had always insisted on watching scary shows and movies with me or her sister, and there had never been an issue before. In fact she had always said that those things were silly, not scary at all. This is the same kid that always tells me that monsters are her friends (thanks Monster High). She even likes to pretend that she is a werewolf named Claudine.
The same kid who walked around all day and night on Halloween, trying her best to scare everyone she saw with her scary witch laugh. Now she was refusing to even use the bathroom by herself in the middle of the day, let alone sleep in her own bed at night. Her fears quickly escalated beyond just zombies to encompass all monsters, and sometimes even alligators too (we live in New York so I have no idea why).
A Hopeless Situation
My normal tactics for soothing her fears, like checking under the beds and in closets were failing. No matter how many times we discussed that zombies are just make-believe. Or that she is the bravest kid I know. She still was completely terrified. I tried my best to promise her that I would keep her safe, but she was also afraid that the monsters would get me too. My fiance tried giving her a special crucifix of his to wear at night as a charm against monsters. While she wears it everyday and clings to it tightly, it has done nothing to quiet her fears. Of course this upsets me. Especially since it’s my fault that she’s so frightened.
With a ton of research and patience, I set out a mission to help my child cope with her fears. My previous attempts were failing because as I discovered, my approach was all wrong. Part expert opinion and part personal experience, here is my plan of defense to slay those (imaginary) zombies, as well as any other fears and anxieties my children may face in the future.
Recognizing Fear vs Anxiety
Most adults don’t realize that children can struggle with anxiety just as we do. It may be on a different scale but that does not mean that children do not still feel pressure. They are expected to do well in school and ace tests. Follow a lot of rules at school and at home. As well as being under constant scrutiny by many of the adults around them to behave and perform well. The world and how it works is all still so new to them. Yet they are constantly being reminded that everything they do will directly affect their futures.
Let It Go
The solution to relieving your child’s anxiety is simple. Let your kids just be kids. Not every test, school project, or homework assignment has to be perfection. Putting that much pressure on our children to perform and behave their best every time teaches them that failure is not an option. Failure is in fact an important part of life, especially for kids. Mistakes are how we learn, and how we improve ourselves. I like to tell my kids that tests (for example, the statewide tests) are not an assessment of how smart they are. Instead they are a guide to help them see what they know already and what they can learn next.
When my 9-year-old came home the other week upset that she hadn’t been taught all of the material on her science statewide test beforehand, I assured her that was okay. The questions she didn’t know the answers to show her new things that she can learn. Instead of pushing her to study more, we will be learning the material in fun ways. Like going to the science museum, conducting experiments, or collecting rocks to study and classify.
What Makes Kids Anxious
Anxieties can include but are not limited to: taking tests, performing in public, making new friends, social situations, and fitting in amongst their peers. Anxieties are fears that are based on reality. Since these types of issues are based on actual things going on in your child’s life, they are also easier to address and overcome.
Take the time to listen to why your child is feeling anxious and don’t be dismissive. Remember that to them, whatever is worrying them is a very big deal. Be as supportive as you possibly can be. Anxiety issues can become more severe and serious over time if not dealt with properly.
You can also minimize their stresses by leading the way in showing your child how to overcome them. Breathing techniques, visualization, and even essential oils are amazing tools to help your young ones to deal. Sometimes all it takes is for your child to face what they are afraid of head on (on their terms). Proper sleep, nutrition, and exercise are also key in mastering long-term or recurring anxiety.
Fear is typically of the unknown, irrational, or unreal. A child may be afraid of heights because they are scared to fall, even when the likelihood of that happening is slim to none. They may fear death because it is something they are yet to understand. Or they may fear things like the monsters under their beds, and whatever other creatures their imaginations may create. The same little minds that can dream up kingdoms, or entire space adventures, inevitably will also imagine scary things like aliens, monsters, and in my case- zombies.
To a little mind these fears feel very real. I can remember as a child my mother telling me that the boogey man was not real. I also remember that I did not believe her. For my 4-year-old simply telling her that zombies are make believe wasn’t enough either. Just as I did when I was young, my daughter believes that she can see them, hear them, and she knows that they are there. None of my reassurances have convinced her otherwise.
While I hate seeing that my child is afraid, I also understand that these fears are almost like a childhood rite of passage. At different stages of their lives, children tend to fear particular things, and that is normal. These fears will also change, or go away with age.
How To Help
Talk It Out
With anxiety and fear alike, it is important that you talk things out with your child. Let them openly express what it is that they are afraid of, and why. You can help them to rate their fear on a scale of 1-10. For young kids they can rate their fear as up to their knees (for sort of scary). Up to their belly (for very scary). Or up to their eyes (for terrifying). Sometimes this can help them to realize the thing that they are frightened of at that moment, isn’t as scary as they may have thought. It also helps you to gauge their fears and to better assist them.
With my own kids, I try to help them imagine that monsters are in fact friendly, and are just misunderstood. They may look scary but they are probably just lonely and wish they had a friend to play with.
Don’t Be Dismissive
When your child tells you that they are afraid of something, don’t tell them that it is silly or irrational. Even if you mean it in a loving way. To them that fear is very real, and it just means that you don’t believe them. It will continue to bother them. Instead be supportive and listen.
Don’t Give In
While it is important to acknowledge their fears, do not give in to them. If your child is afraid of the bathroom, it isn’t very logical that you allow them to avoid bathing until they outgrow it. The same applies in other instances. Avoiding fear is also teaching them that they have something to be afraid of in the first place. Be gentle and supportive as your child approaches something that they are afraid of. Think of a solution together. Even if it is something as simple as holding their hand to provide extra security and comfort.
Create A Sleep Ritual
Lack of sleep can make a grown person irritable, anxious, and emotional. It can do the same thing to your child. If they are overly anxious during the day or perhaps afraid to go to bed at night, try making bedtime a little earlier. It’s okay if they don’t fall asleep right away. Dedicate this extra time with them to distress and relax. Just like adults need time to unwind at the end of a long day, so do our kids.
Relaxation methods are important and helpful in situations where your child is feeling afraid. While their imaginations have been creating goblins, ghouls, and monsters- the goal is to get them to imagine things that make them happy or feel good. You can assist them by asking your child to close their eyes while they imagine a scene. Maybe your family took a trip to the beach that was particularly nice. Relive that experience while taking the extra time to describe the sights and sounds. Such as the warmth of the sun, or the sounds of the waves crashing.
Taking a deep breath or counting them is an easy practice for relieving fear and anxiety. Teach your children to focus on their breathing and letting it relax them. Rather than focusing on the situation that is causing them stress.
Playtime is equally important when it comes to your child’s mental tranquility. Both creative play and exercise release endorphins that make your child happy. A happy child is less likely t be fearful. This does not mean that if your child has fears, that they are not generally happy however. Remember that fear is normal. It is simply a method that helps them to feel more relaxed, and therefore able to better handle stressful situations.
If you are apt to scream when you see a spider, or react dramatically to things that frighten you, you are teaching your children to do the same. If you have a calm approach, this is the behavior your child will likely mimic. I am personally terrified of spiders. Instead of freaking out like I do when no one is around, I stay calm and explain to my daughters the role that spiders play in nature and how vital they are. Taking away their “fear factor”. Inside I may be crying, but on the outside, I am showing my children that I can be brave.
When your child is feeling fearful, redirect their attention to the positive. This is sort of the same as them using their imagination in a positive way, except this time you will be focusing on things that are real. Take the time to discuss the highlights of their day, so that is what they are focused on before sleep. Or when they are experiencing something that they are afraid of.
With the right tools and guidance, your child can overcome their fears. Always remember that fear is normal in both adults and in children. Unless your child’s fears become phobias or inhibit them from living a normal happy life (in these cases consider seeking professional assistance). Be patient, be kind, and work with your child so that they can learn how to be brave and to never let their fears hold them back.