Dr. Michele Locke is a Clinical Psychologist with an adorable new baby boy. Thank you Dr. Locke for this amazing step by step approach to help your children with anxieties. My daughter started showing fear of dogs a few months ago. Anytime she would see a dog close-up she would start to cry and yell “bye-bye” and I didn’t know what to do- now I feel like I have amazing tools to help her with her fear.
Children, like adults, experience fear and anxiety. Firstly, it is important to remember that these emotions are instinctual and, in fact, are responsible for keeping us alive. We are hard wired for these feelings. If there is genuine danger in our environment, we want to experience fear or anxiety in order to warn us against the danger and encourage avoidance or self-protection. You may have noticed that certain fears tend to be common among humans (insects, darkness, heights). This is because we have evolved to survive, and some of these things have historically (and sometimes presently) threatened that survival. However, many times we experience fear or anxiety when there is not actual threat present or when our survival is not at risk. This is problematic as we then start to avoid things that are not actually dangerous. This can keep us and our kids from experiencing thing that are fun, exciting, novel, and interesting! It can impair our ability to learn and grow; therefore making it a barrier to healthy emotional and social development. These patterns can start in childhood and, when ignored or overlooked, can lead to more serious challenges in later childhood and adulthood.
So, as a parent – what can you do to support your little one if he/she is experiencing these very human emotions? Well, firstly and obviously, if there is actual danger present and your little one is experiencing fear and anxiety – support them to steer clear! We want to strengthen and foster those instincts. They are hard wired in our brains for a reason, and are meant to stay.
Secondly, figure out when fear and anxiety are being experienced in the absence of true danger. Here are some examples where kids may commonly experience fear and anxiety, despite the situation being objectively safe (meaning that they are not at risk of serious harm, most likely).
- Seeing a small dog, on a leash with it’s owner
- Going to a friends house to play (you know the parents and child)
- Going to school in the morning (in the absence of any school based traumas)
- Seeing a small bug on the floor
- Going to a new extra curricular program
- Saying hi to someone in the school yard
- Being in a dark room to sleep at night
- Sleeping alone in his/her own bed
- Ordering at a restaurant
*Remember just because these things are safe, it does not mean they are comfortable for your little one. You want to be sure you are differentiating between safety versus comfort. Emotional discomfort is not harmful for human beings; in fact it builds resilience if children can learn to cope skilfully (perhaps another blog post!).
Here is a brief guide to support your child with his or her fear or anxiety*:
- Acknowledge the feeling. You notice your child’s emotion is intensifying, as the dog is getting closer. Initially you want to acknowledge the emotion the child is experiencing (“I can see you’re very scared!!”). While the intensity of her emotion may not make sense to you, it is in fact being experienced and noticing it and acknowledging it, is soothing for kids. It lets them know you’re paying attention and that you believe they are scared.
- Provide contact and comfort (i.e. hug, connect, pat, kiss, using words). Kids need you to help them regulate their feelings. If you are also panicking, there is messaging in that. You want to try your best to remain calm and connect. Kneel down to her level, pull her closely calmly, and use words and actions to convey comfort.
Important Tip: If you are not calm, try to focus on calming yourself before engaging with your child (even if it’s 1-2 deep breaths).
- Encourage the child to remain present in the situation with you there. Next, you want to encourage the child with support to remain present in the face of the feared thing, while providing the message that they are safe by staying with them and encouraging them (i.e., “This dog looks like he may be friendly, how about we stay together and look at him and check it out as a team!” or “Let’s go back into your room. I know it’s dark and I think we should check it out anyways”).
Important Tip: Your child will resist this suggestion. Remember he believes there is danger! He does not want to stay present with danger! Your job is to remember there is not truly danger present.
- Encourage direct approach with/or without you. Eventually the goal would be to help your child approach the feared thing and learn for herself that she is safe. Once your child has the opportunity to experience the feared thing without the predicted consequence, the learning occurs and the fear will be lower the next time! You will want to do this slowly and not all at once (i.e., looking at pictures of puppies, then videos, looking at the dog while its owner is holding it, then touching it with one finger while it’s owner is holding it, then moving to petting with entire hand while owner is holding it).
Important Tip: As you may know, approaching things we are scared of, makes us feel more scared in the immediate moment! This is to be expected. The longer we stay present, and learn everything is OKAY the less our fear will be.
- See the DO NOT section for ensure you do not work backward.
- Model non-anxious behaviour, in the moment and generally. In today’s world, it can be easy to feel fear. There is plenty going on that can make any human experience some very genuine and valid anxiety. That being said, your kids are watching. It is critical to be aware of what you are speaking about, or what they may be exposed to in media, at school, or from other family members or peers. Despite what we may believe, alarming children and making them fearful will not actually serve to keep them safe from things outside of their control. If you are in a situation that your child is fearful of, be mindful and aware of your own emotions. If you are displaying signs of anxiety and fear, too, they will notice.
Extremely important tip: If you are fearful or have anxiety about the same thing as your child– this will not work well! Kids are emotion sponges – you have fear, they have fear. Ask someone else to help you out, or do the above steps for yourself first ☺
*If the fear or anxiety is serious or debilitating, please seek professional medical or psychological support.
Here is a brief guide on what NOT to do, despite it being what you WANT to do:
- Avoid a rescue mission. Try to ensure you do not remove your child by picking him up immediately and hastily, walking away, removing the feared thing abruptly, or fostering avoidance (i.e., allowing your little one to sleep in your bed every night, if he scared of his room!). You want to comfort without rescuing. Rescuing sends the message that there is something to be rescued from. After all, why would a parent rescue a child if there was nothing to be rescued from? Comforting provides the message that you see your child and acknowledges their experience, without the problematic component of reinforcing the fear (which rescuing does).
- Avoid excessive reassurance. Try not to reassure your child that he is only safe after the feared stimulus is removed or gone. Your child already believes he is unsafe. If you provide messaging that confirms he is only safe once the thing he fears is no longer present, you are agreeing with him – albeit unintentionally! Keep in mind reassurance is difference from comfort/validation. You can acknowledge your child’s emotions without excessively reassuring that he is safe.
- Be aware of your own emotional response. If you are anxious seeing your child anxious, they will assume there is something to be anxious about, which will strengthen their fear! Also, be kind to yourself and forgiving, as seeing your little one in distress is hard!
- Try not to foster avoidance. Sometimes, it is straight up easier to allow our kids to avoid things they fear! It brings them great relief in the short term, which in turn, brings parents relief. However, over time, the fears and anxieties will become more ingrained and harder to overcome!
A final thought:
Many of the above ‘do not dos’ may feel like they go against all of your instincts as a parent. When your child is afraid, you want to rescue her and do whatever you can to make her less afraid, and fast! Of course you do. That makes you a good parent, and a loving one too. Helping our kids with their emotions is hard work! It requires you to act in a way that is in your child’s longer-term best interest, despite shorter-term discomfort, for you both.
The short-term benefit of rescuing from non-harmful stimuli is wonderful – your child will calm down immediately once the “threat” is removed and the day will go on. You are both happy and calm! However, you may be unintentionally communicating that there is legitimate danger, and over time your child’s fear and anxiety will increase.