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How to talk with children who are scared?

Understandably, we all try to shield children from any painful or difficult states of emotions – for instance, from anxiety. However, when they react to certain situations with ‘irrational’ fear, quite often we ourselves feel helpless. We tend to avoid the subject, marginalising the problem or resorting to ‘shock therapy’. Unfortunately, none of those qualify as reactions of support. How should we, in that case, talk with children about their anxieties?

What is the difference between fear and anxiety?

Before we move any further, we need to draw a clear distinction between fear and anxiety as in psychology, these are two separate terms.

Fear

Fear is a reaction to particular reality factors, to real danger, to events taking place in the present – for instance, a barking dog running towards us or a mugger trying to steal our purse. Defined in this way, fear triggers action and is considered useful. It’s also short-term, i.e. when the danger is over, we retrieve our emotional balance.

Anxiety

Anxiety, on the other hand, relates to predicting danger or imagining it. Here are some examples of what may instigate a feeling of anxiety: an airplane crashing during your flight, being scared of old people or blood specimen collection. Anxiety is a very subjective feeling tied up to our life experiences, believes and temperament. Against all appearances, it can be useful in the same way fear is. Imagining danger may protect us from risky behaviours – for instance, anxiety about speeding while driving or jumping from a dangerous height. 

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It’s also worth noting the fact that children may be affected by the phenomenon known as developmental anxiety. This could occur at particular stages of their life – for instance, anxiety about noise in two-year-olds or anxiety about ghosts, monsters and the dark in preschool children.

If anxiety in your child is so strong that it hampers or precludes everyday functionality and excludes them from social life, it is necessary to seek professional help.

In those instances, you may be dealing with non-functioning anxiety which can be identified based on the following modes of behaviour:

  • increased irritability
  • impulsiveness and aggressive reactions
  • withdrawal, retreating into oneself, reluctance towards interactions
  • nocturnal enuresis
  • problems with sleep
  • retrogressing into previous stages of development (Lange-Rachwał 2019)

When fear turns into anxiety

Such crippling anxiety could occur in children who experience fear (in situations such as falling off a bike, falling down the stairs, getting lost in a crowd) but are not offered sufficient support from adults to process that emotion and regain their internal balance.

The aforementioned ‘support’ constitutes:

  1. a chance to express fear without being judged (i.e. without receiving comments such as ‘Get over it, it’s not a big deal’, ‘Stop crying’, ‘Such a big girl/boy but scared to ride their bike’)
  2. some space to talk about their experience or to recreate the situation through role-play

Let’s focus for a moment on the second point and look at its impact from the level of the brain. When a frightened person speaks and describes what happened, their left hemisphere (the one in charge of speaking) begins to communicate with the right hemisphere. In this simple way, you will be helping the verbal and logical part of the brain to help the visual and emotional part to overcome the experience. We call this process ‘integrating the traumatic experience’. The child will remember the event, but will no longer experience it with the same level of anxiety (Bilbao 2015).

Giving weight to experienced emotions (through our validation: ‘It’s understandable that you could have been running scared’, ‘It really does sound frightening’, ‘I suspect that if I were you, I would also be frightened’) and an honest, detailed conversation with our children about the event (‘What happened then?’, ‘What did that dog look like?’, ‘What was she doing that made you feel scared?’) will help them understand their own reactions and deactivate their traumatic, permanent association of anxiety with that particular situation in their brain.

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Similar therapeutic results can be achieved through play. In his book Playful Parenting, An Exciting New Approach to Raising Children That Will Help You Nurture Close Connections, Solve Behavior Problems, and Encourage Confidence, Lawrence J. Cohen (2008) describes a case of a child who, having returned from the doctor’s, engages into role-play. They pretend to be a doctor and administer pretend injections to their dolls or parents. In this way, they are aiming to tame the fear they experienced. The important elements of this process are the role reversal (the child becomes the doctor and the adult turns into the patient) and replacing the horror with laughter (the parent can escape the fake injection or objectively pretend they are in massive pain etc.). After the role-play, you can also follow up with a conversation with your child.

How should we talk with children who are scared?

There is no golden rule that would guarantee success. However, we have some tips that may help parents support their children through anxiety:

1. Notice the fear/anxiety and let it be heard

Through using phrases that reaffirm our interest in their emotions (‘I can see that you’re scared’, ‘That was pretty frightening, wasn’t it?, ‘Are you feeling anxious?’, ‘Are you finding this disturbing?’), we let our children know that they are important to us, that we are involved in their internal world and ready to support them. Touch can also be a helpful tool – if there is no reluctance on their behalf, let’s embrace our children and let them have a good weep in our arms. Let’s not rush them by saying things like: ‘Okay, no more tears’, ‘Don’t exaggerate’. They should be offered as much time as they need in order to process their emotions in a way that will not leave a traumatic mark hidden somewhere on the inside. Our attitude is key – we should demonstrate acceptance and empathy.

2. Respect and accept children’s emotions

In those difficult moments, it’s worth trying to put ourselves in our children’s shoes: ‘I would be scared, too’, ‘I can imagine that this is frightening for you’, ‘It’s understandable that you may feel this way’. Ignoring anxiety (…) makes children feel that their emotions are inadequate, ‘weird’ or ‘unnecessary’ in their parents’ eyes. This might have a negative effect on the process of building a sense of security and openness when faced with another scary situation in the future. It also makes children question their self-trust and makes them feel bad about the fact that they are unable to deal with (according to their parents) a simple situation. As a result, children end up alone with their problems (Lange-Rachwał 2019).

3. Apply communication of collaboration

By saying ‘I would like to help you in some way’, ‘Perhaps we can face this situation together’, ‘I’m here to help you’, we reiterate to our children that they are not alone with their fear and that they can rely on our support. This facilitates the move from experience to attempts of self-regulation. Together with our children, we should think of ways to cope with their anxiety – for instance, if they are afraid of water, we can suggest a walk by the lake while holding hands. It’s important, though, that we respect their boundaries. If they don’t want to engage with a certain idea or suddenly decide to opt out, we should accept it. Obliging children to confront a problem is useless and only increases their fear. (…) When the decision comes from you the child is obeying your choice not his, and is not using his own resources. Being dependant in this way increases fear (Filliozat 2013). This is why all kinds of ‘shock therapy’ such as throwing children in the water so that they learn to swim are ineffective. In fact, they are actually harmful for they increase anxiety, weaken a child’s trust in their parents and very often turn into a traumatic memory.

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4. Remind your child about similar situations that they handled well

In order to offer some encouragement, you can also bring up past situations that were dealt with successfully: ‘Remember that time you were scared to spend the night at your friend’s place for the first time but you did it anyway?, ‘I remember that you overcame your fear of…’.

5. Talk about your own experience with anxiety

Children love listening to stories about their parents – especially those that relate to their present situation. This is why it’s a good idea to talk about your own childhood anxieties and how you overcame them. It presents another opportunity to reiterate the fact that they are not a ‘weirdo’, because everyone is scared of something, even mum and dad! 

Anxiety and fear are difficult, often painful emotions that cannot be avoided. This is why it’s crucial that as parents we are ready to support our children in their experiences and their search for effective ways of coping with anxiety. An honest conversation is definitely one of them.

References:

Bilbao, A. (2015). The child’s brain explained to parents. Barcelona: Platforma Editorial (pp. 126-127). [More on this subject can be found in Siegel, D. J. and Bryson, T. P. (2012). The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Proven Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. New York: Bantam Books]

Cohen, L. J. (2008). Playful Parenting: An Exciting New Approach to Raising Children That Will Help You Nurture Close Connections, Solve Behavior Problems, and Encourage Confidence. New York: Random House Publishing Group (pp. 12-13).

Filliozat, I. (2013). Understanding Children’s Emotions. London: Lulu.com (pp. 126-127).

Lange-Rachwał, M. (2019). Moje dziecko się boi. Jak mogę mu pomóc? Warsaw: Difin SA (pp. 10-12, 17-18). 

The author: Aneta Zychma

A graduate of Polish Studies, currently doing a degree in Education Studies. A critic of theatrical plays and therapeutic stories created on demand. A zealous evangelist for slow life and attachment parenting. She runs developmental and relaxation classes for babies/toddlers and their parents. She lives in Świętokrzyskie Mountains together with her husband, their son and their dog.

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Autor/ka: Aneta Zychma

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Polonistka, pedagożka, konsultantka kryzysowa w nurcie pozytywnej terapii kryzysu, trenerka umiejętności społecznych, trenerka funkcji poznawczych. Założycielka Tulistacji - miejsca, w którym wspiera rodziców i dzieci na drodze do dobrego życia.
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