A loud dog barks, and your three-year-old bursts into tears. Your four-year-old won’t go to sleep unless you sit bedside to scare away the monsters. A clap of thunder shakes the house, and suddenly your five-year-old is running into your bedroom and jumping under your covers.
Fear is a basic emotion that every human being experiences, children included. It’s absolutely normal to feel anxious or worried at times; in fact, fear can even be helpful because it sends warning messages to your body to act quickly and remove yourself from danger.
While it may be difficult for an adult to appreciate the fears of young children, those anxieties can seem very real and very scary to a child between the ages of three and six. The best approach an adult can take is to first, open your heart. Then follow these 10 tips to help soothe your child’s fears:
1. Calm down. If your child is afraid, engage him in activity that reduces the experience of fear: Take a few deep breaths (this is also known as belly breathing); count slowly to 10; go for a walk. Teach children relaxation skills such as gentle stretching or visualization, in which they close their eyes and picture themselves in a safe, happy place.
2. Encourage self-soothing behaviors. Positive self-talk is an amazingly effective antidote to negative thoughts and feelings. Have her say, “I’m not afraid, I am brave!” Let her snuggle with a favorite toy or blanket. And make sure to tell her you’re proud of her when she acts brave.
3. Talk about it. Encourage your child to talk about his feelings; the act of vocalizing thoughts helps lessen the intensity of the fear. Talking to others can also be the first step toward a solution for the problem: Conversation can provide comfort and reassurance that everything will be okay, and can validate feelings.
4. Listen with understanding. Avoid making your child feel bad about being afraid. Never laugh or tell them their fears aren’t real. They sure are to her! And it’s absolutely normal to feel afraid sometimes.
5. Get out. Sometimes the best solution is simply to get out of the situation that’s causing the fear. Or…
6. …reduce the fear response. If your child is fearful of a place or thing or experience that he will have to learn to cope with (such as a doctor’s office or a new school), help him face his fears gradually. Slowly increase his contact with the feared object or experience in safe ways—such as with you by his side at first—so that positive outcomes occur.
7. Watch yourself. Children take their cues from adults in their lives, so it’s important that parents pay careful attention to their own emotions and reactions. When you appear calm, it helps your child feel that way, too.
8. Allow extra time. Don’t try to rush your child through “getting over” her fears. Slow down, read an extra story, sing a song, let her talk. Extra cuddles help soothe anxieties.
9. Create structure. When children have a routine at home and know what to expect each day, they feel more secure and less anxious. Try to establish a consistent mealtime, bath time, story time, and bedtime.
10. Play on! Children often work out strong feelings through play. Use dolls, puppets, stories, and art to help children talk about being afraid. Have them to draw pictures of their feelings or something they’re afraid of, then ask them tell you about the pictures they made. Use this as a springboard for discussion.
The good news with children is that their fears are usually short-lived. If your child is experiencing prolonged fears or anxieties or phobias, this may warrant having a professional take a closer look before it escalates. Your child’s preschool or elementary school may be able to recommend a child therapist or psychologist.
Adults often say “Kid are resilient,” and yes, they certainly are. But sometimes a child is struggling and may not have the cognitive or verbal capacity to get at the roots of their own fears. That’s where caring, thoughtful adults come in to help calm them down, listen with love, and reassure them that you’ll get through this—together.