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
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).
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.