Multiple Childhood Fears Concern Parent

frightened girl

Question: My son is aged 7 years old and has a lot of fears in him. He has a fear of heights, in so much as he will not climb onto a 6 foot slide in a park. He will not even sit on a swing. He is afraid of being in a swimming pool, although he does go in the kiddies pool now as the water reaches his waist. He is scared of the dark and of insects. He will not fight back for himself if he is being bullied by another child his age or even smaller, either physically or verbally. Could someone please help and let me know how I could get rid of these fears of his. Will he outgrow them with age or do I need to take him to a psychologist?

Answer by Dyan Eybergen, author of Out of the Mouths of Babes: Parenting from a Child’s Perspective. Dyan is a paediatric psychiatric nurse, has more than ten years experience working as a therapist and parent educator. Dyan and her family were guests on the cable television show “For Kids Sake”, along with parenting expert Barbara Coloroso. Eybergen resides in St. Albert, Alberta, with her husband and three sons.

Answer: Typical childhood fears change with age. Younger children usually experience fears that are not based in reality: monster under the bed, boogie men. Children between the ages of 7-11 tend to worry more about universal issues like war, pollution and extreme weather. These types of fears can also include fear of strangers, heights, darkness, animals, blood, insects, and being left alone. Children will usually outgrow their fears, or exchange one type of fear for another as they get older and the landscape of their lives change. The strategies we teach our children to help cope with fears can benefit them for life. It prepares them for dealing with larger fears they may experience when they are older.

Some signs that a child may be overly anxious about fears may include:

  •  becoming clingy, impulsive, or distracted
  • nervous movements, such as temporary twitches
  • problems getting to sleep and/or staying asleep longer than usual
  • sweaty hands
  • accelerated heart rate and breathing
  • nausea
  • headaches
  • stomachaches

To help your child deal with fears and anxieties, here are a few things you may want to keep in mind.

  • Recognize that the fear is real. As trivial as a fear may seem, it feels real to your child and it’s causing him to feel anxious and afraid. Being able to talk about fears helps — words often take some of the power out of the negative feeling. If you talk about it, it can become less powerful. Use “detective thinking” by asking him to assess the threat he is anticipating: “What do you think will happen? Is it reasonable to think that you will drown with a life jacket on and me standing beside you?”
  • Never belittle the fear as a way of forcing your child to overcome it. Saying, “Don’t be ridiculous! That slide isn’t even that high”, may get your child to go to the playground, but it won’t make the fear go away.
  • Don’t feed into to fears, either. If your child doesn’t like insects, don’t not walk on the grass to avoid one. This will just reinforce that insects should be feared and avoided. Provide support and gentle care as you approach the feared object or situation with your child.
  • Teach kids how to rate fear. A child who can visualize the intensity of the fear on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the strongest, may be able to “see” the fear as less intense than first imagined. Rating on a thermometer is also a good visual tool. Younger kids can think about how “full of fear” they are, with being full “up to my knees” as not so scared, “up to my stomach” as more frightened, and “up to my head” as truly petrified. After you some coping strategies have him rate the fear again so he can see how much control he has over managing it.
  • Teach coping strategies. Try these easy-to-implement techniques. Exposure: using you as “home base,” the child can venture out toward the feared object, and then return to you for safety before venturing out again. Positive Self Talk: The child can also learn some positive self-statements, such as “I can do this” and “I will be OK” to say to himself when feeling anxious.
  • Relaxation techniques are helpful, including visualization (of floating on a cloud or lying on a beach, for example) and deep breathing (imagining that the lungs are balloons and letting them slowly deflate).

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If anxious feelings persist, they can be a real detriment to a child’s well being.The question to ask yourself is how are your son’s fears impacting his activities of daily living: social interactions, academic performance, sleep? If his fears are keeping him from participating in his life, i.e. he won’t go out for recess because he is afraid of going near the slide on the playground, or he refuses to get out of the car when you go to the beach for the day because he doesn’t want to go near the water, or if he is staying up at night worrying about what he will do if he is bullied at school, then you will need to take action and get some professional help.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is incredibly useful in helping children overcome anxieties and fears. A Registered Psychologist or Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist will work with your child to “re-wire” his negative thinking that causes him to feel overly anxious about his fears. A great book I recommend is Freeing Your Child From Anxiety by Tamar E. Chansky.

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Comments

  1. My son, who is now 13 was exactly like you described. He would not go on carnival rides or leave the side of the swimming pool, for fear. They do outgrow it. He is now riding all the rides and swims in the deep end of the pool, you just have to be there and not compare him to other children, “look at so-and-so he is your age and he is doing it, so why don’t you” does not help and only belittles the child. So just do things with him that does not require him to be put in those situations and be patient.

  2. My son, who is eleven years old has experienced high anxiety and fears all of his life. He experiences fears of heights, climbing, movement, swimming, all fears that you mentioned for your son.

    After several years of “one step forward, two steps back” we noticed that he also had quirky, unusual behaviors. He liked to sit on his head, he liked to walk on his hands instead of his feet, he preferred tumbling and rolling and cartwheels. There is so much more that I could describe but the bottom line was that he suffered from sensory integration disorder.

    This affected his eating habits, his behavior in social settings, his type of shut down modes that he selected to use, and other areas of his life. After following this line of thought for several years and searching for an occupational therapist that was trained in Sensory Integration Disorder we have made miles of improvements.

    It might be in the best interest of everyone concerned to have him tested for Sensory Integration Disorder, if for no other reason than to rule it out.

    When he was an infant we could not hold him and sit or stand from a yard swing. Now he gets on the trampoline and goes as high as he can and does all kinds of acrobatic maneuvers. It is a joy to see him enjoy life to the fullest, however, we still experience negative times when people do not understand that he has “unseen” challenges and is not just trying to act up and cause disturbances.

    Good luck and keep me posted on how things are going. I am curious to hear the results.

    Thanks,

    Chris Hoehn

    • Hi! We have been having issues with our 8 yr old son for about a little over a year that we are aware of. It has been like he went to bed one night and woke up a different kid. We have had him to a bunch of doctors and he has an IEP in school but bottom line is we have been referred to have a neuropsychological developemental yest done but my medical insurance will not approve it. How did you have your child diagnosed?

  3. Paula Fiore says:

    I have a 6 year old daughter that has sensory integration disorder. She has alot of fears and anxieties over many things. She is in Kindergarden and has many therapies to help her. She has been progressing wonderfully. I find I have to be very creative and intuitive in how I help her and uncover her fears to make things easier for her. Deep down she really wants to be part of a fuller life and when work thru an obstacle she is so proud of herself. She used to be afraid of the ocean, seagulls, seaweed when she was younger but has moved on. Noices and too many people have been difficult for her but is starting to manage them better. Ocupational therapy has been the best thing for her. You would do well to have your son evaluated so you can better help him. Now is a good time. Good luck.

  4. WHEN I WAS A CHILD OF YOUR SON’S AGE, I TOO HAD MANY FEARS,IT TURNS OUT IN MY CASE , ALOT OF MY PROBLEMS WITH FEAR WERE CAUSED ALOT IN PART TO MY PARENTS CONSTANT FIGHTING, I NEVER KNEW WHEN ONE OF THEM WOULD LEAVE, OR ONE USUALLY MOM,MIGHT BE HURT.CHILDREN ARE VERY SMART AND CAN PICK UP ON ISSUES BETWEEN PARENTS.

  5. My son was four when we noticed he was developing some fears. We used the book “The Anxiety Cure for Kids” as an aid for us in talking with him and helping him deal with certain fears. He is much better at recognizing fear and how to cope with it with our coaching techniques we learned from this great book. It may be a place to start, but you may want help if it persists.

  6. Annmarie B says:

    Both my son (now 12) and daughter (now 17) experienced fears when they were younger. A friend gave me the idea of using a “(fear) deterrent bear” — in my daughter’s case it was a “monster deterrent bear”. We used the same bear for my son’s fear of the dark. He then became fearful of bugs — spiders in particular. For this one, we employed the use of an outdated radar detector. He was able to turn it on at night when he felt afraid of the spiders. Perhaps one of those rubber bracelets could help for fears outside the home. Both children overcame their fears pretty quickly (within a few months). They seemed to respond well to us validating their feelings. Hope this helps!

  7. Jennifer says:

    My son who is turning 9 this month has fears at night about going to sleep. He saw a movie that scared him and tells me when he closes his eyes he sees the characters from the movie. After him not falling asleep without one of us in his bed for 2 weeks, we went to talk to a therapist. A technique we are using is to leave the room for one minute, coming back for one minute, leaving again for one minute, then up to 2 minutes then 5. We have never got past the 2 minute because he falls asleep which tells me that it’s working. It is getting a lot better.

    • My daughter (10) is also afraid at night. I have to stay in her room until she falls asleep. When she wakes up to use the bathroom, she wakes me to go with her because she is scared. If I’m lucky, I can get her to go back to sleep in her own bed. Often, however, she cries and says she is scared, and I end up letting her in my bed, partly because I’m too tired to fight her. I will try the one minute in and one minute out strategy. Any other suggestions???

  8. My 9 year old daughter has fears of having bad dreams, so she came up with her own solution: flushing them down the toilet just before going to bed.

  9. Children have much greater imaginations than us; and they work overtime.
    One way to assuage these fears is to go over worse case scenarios. What is the worst thing that could happen? vs. what is this the thrill of success and the swoosh of the wind in your hair and the adulation of friends, they high fives etc? Is the risk worth it?
    Remind them that the biggest thing they have to fear is their imagination. The largest meanest and ugliest thing we worry about is hiding out in our overactive imagination.
    I remind Cubs of this when we enter a new event, hike at night or anything new that may challenge their equilibrium. It seems to work well. They are bright enough at a very early age to pick up this idea and understand it. And if they don’t that is OK too. Because when they are ready they will. Until then we need to reassure them that we will help them and protect them.

    Our modern media and its lack of restraint and appropriate discussions at child centred times can fuel overactive imaginations. It seems that the more mature or advanced in their thinking the greater the problem appears to them. There is a lot of truth in “ignorance is bliss”…at an earlier age. Sadly we steal their innocence at an earlier and earlier age in the west.

    We adults must be very vigilant about our own discussions within earshot of the young. On a night hike with Cubs (8-10 years)… I wanted to find a sock…when one parent, along for the hike started talking about the sighting of a cougar in the area while we were hiking…her poor son was standing near….she paid for her lack of thought…he clinged to her all hike long…and sadly he paid even more dearly….an did not enjoy the hike like his companions did… At 8 I would have been imagining a cougar in every tree! We had an adult conversation later!

  10. Jessica Spence says:

    My 9 year old daughter is experiencing fear of tornadoes. We recently moved to missouri and she had never experienced them. I am not sure if part of it is the move and change or what to do for her. She is very anxious and i am concerned that it could become worse. She is becoming more clingy and makes statements like “you cant leave what if there is a tornadoe where you are driving to and it make syou wreck”
    She is more whining and crying, edgy. Any advice would be appreciated

  11. I am looking for answers on how to help a child that has a real fear of puppets. SOunds strange but its true. My grandson has a real true fear of puppets. A few days ago at schoold his teacher had a puppet and he was upset.
    They sent him to a counsler at the school who tried to make interact with puppets.Theyuse puppets during library time and now on library days he does not wnat to go to school. The counsler seems to have done alot more harm than good for him. Any answers or suggestions to try to help him get passed and over this puppet fear would appreciated.
    Thank You
    JoAnna

  12. Faye Bennett says:

    My son who is 9 & in the 4rd Grade has had selective fear of being alone since he was 6 (1st grade). At times he can’t be in the bathroom alone, going to garage, going upstairs to his room and sleeping on his bed(lower bunk) while his older is on the top bunk. We have tried other ways to work with him and his fears and we’d take a step forward and two steps backwards, similar to the other parents situation. I’m glad I read other stories and will try some of them. Please share other ideas/tips on what has worked for other parents and children alike.

    Faye

  13. Annabelle says:

    My child is 13 yrs old and she is still afriad of the dark (being alone by her self day/night), she wont go in the garage or back to her bedroom by herself with the lights turned off. She is afiad that there is someone in the dark and she cant see them. I keep telling her that noone is here in our house but your family. She still believes in ghosts and whenever she hears a crack in the ceiling she freakes out especially if she is by herself. What should I do? Shouldn’t she have grown out of it by now?
    -Annabelle