Simple strategies to put the monster under the bed — and other fears — into perspective.
From Halloween-themed movies to haunted house attractions to the frightening persistence of Covid-19, fall is filled with things that can scare kids. As parents, it’s easy to write off certain things as silly or not a big deal, but it’s important to remember that to children, even trivial fears can sometimes feel paralyzing. The best way to help little ones overcome these intense emotions is through open, honest dialogue.
PLAYGROUND reached out to Dr. Amber Fasula, clinical psychologist and director at Neurogenesis Center of Florida in Maitland, for these tips:
Watch Your Tone
When it comes to talking about fears, the tone of your voice is crucial. “It’s the most important thing,” explains Dr. Fasula. “This is true for any age. Our tone along with our body language and mood is what matters most.”
The reasoning: Kids take cues from us, so if you’re tense, children will be anxious too. If you speak rationally and confidently, they’ll mimic that behavior. This especially pertains to the littlest of kids — even if they’re not developmentally old enough to process the words, they’ll understand the tone.
“For example, when a 2 or 3-year-old falls and scrapes their knee, they look to the parent. It’s the parent’s reaction that shows them how to react,” she explains. If you freak out, they’ll respond in a similar fashion. “There’s no innate programming on how we process fear or pain, but there is on how we experience it.”
“Whatever you do, don’t criticize a child’s fear, call it stupid or ridiculous,” explains Dr. Fasula. Criticism implies that your child’s fear isn’t valid. Instead, offer reassurance.
It’s also important to talk with children, starting around the age of 5, about the fear itself and then aim for a solution-focused approach. Take a child who is frightened of the dark. An effective strategy would be to ask them what they’d like to do about it, whether it’s getting a new nightlight or stuffed animal that’ll make them feel safe.
“When you help them solve the problem, it empowers them to feel like they can do something about it,” says Dr. Fasula.
Differentiate Between the Possible and the Probable
While it’s possible a meteor could hit your house, it’s not probable. Using a probable versus possible scale to measure a child’s fear helps determine how to tackle it.
For unlikely scenarios, express that you understand why the child might feel concerned, but then explain how rare it would be for that occurrence to happen.
For more probable fears, figure out a step-by-step plan for how to address the issue.
Tackle Heavier Topics Head On
Navigating things like disease and death can be tricky, but it’s important to have these conversations rather than pretend these concerns don’t exist. Give children the facts, and then explain how they can protect themselves.
For example, while it’s possible to contract Covid-19 at school, wearing a mask drastically lowers the risk. This continues to encourage solution-based ways to conquer fears no matter how realistic they may be.
When it comes to discussing the concept of dying, explain that death is an ending.
“Get them comfortable understanding the concept of what an ending looks like,” says Dr. Fasula. Explaining that most things eventually end — even mundane things
like a pencil that’s out of lead — helps them grasp the concept.
Know When It’s a Bigger Problem
Sometimes, no matter how much you’ve talked through things, a child may still be scared. If constant support and encouragement isn’t improving anything — and it’s beginning to interfere with daily life — consider seeking guidance from a professional.
“When it’s something that’s creating a lot of distress over a period of time, you might want to call a counselor or psychologist who can provide tools to manage emotions better,” says Dr. Fasula.