All children have fears of one kind or another. Fear is an emotion like others such as love, happiness, anger, hurt and sadness. Babies are quite unpredictable. In the early days of their lives they are quite fearless. They go boldly into the great unknown. As the child grows older, her imagination and curiosity develops side by side. She learns the potential dangers of certain actions and objects and the reasons why it is so. As she makes these connections, her awareness makes her cautious and sometimes frightened.
It has been observed that these fears develop more often in children for whom feeding and toilet training have been contentious issues, or in those who have overprotective parents or who have been regularly warned or cautioned against doing certain things. On the other hand, some children are just born sensitive. They will slowly grow out of these new fears with your understanding and help.
What is the cause?
For some children feelings of anxiety or worry can happen anytime, for others they might occur only at certain times, like when they are leaving their home or family to go somewhere. In some this feeling of anxiety occurs almost all the time and gets in the way of doing what they want to do.
Typical childhood fears include fear of strangers, heights, darkness, animals, blood, insects, and being left alone. Children often learn to fear a specific object or situation after having an unpleasant experience, such as a dog bite or an accident. Separation anxiety is common when young children are starting school, whereas adolescents may experience anxiety related to social acceptance and academic achievement.
When anxieties and fears persist, problems can arise. As much as a parent hopes the child will grow out of it, the opposite occurs, and the cause of the anxiety becomes more prevalent. The anxiety becomes a phobia, or a fear that is extreme, severe, and persistent. A phobia can be very difficult to tolerate, both for the child and for those around her.
Some of the causes are:
Fear of the dark
Fear of the dark is one of the most common childhood fears. This is also a fear that is quite common in adults too. If your child is scared of the dark you can indulge her by leaving her bedroom door open or leaving a night light on. Keep her well occupied with games and other activities throughout the day so that she has no time to brood on her fears. In time, she will realize that there is nothing to fear.
Sometimes children develop fears of tangible things like dogs, cockroaches, water, and men in uniform. It is not necessary for the child to have had a frightening experience with any of the objects of their fears. It will certainly not help them to overcome their fear by forcing them to confront the objects of their fears. Children most often outgrow these fears themselves.
Fear of death
Some children are scared of death and dying. They cannot understand what happens to their pets or people who die. It is necessary for the parents to explain to the child that the deceased has gone up to God in heaven. On the other hand, parents can just deal with death by saying that the person was old, weak and too tired to go on living. It is important that parents maintain a casual air and reassure their child that they will be around for years to come.
Fear at the movies
Some children begin to wail in the theatres and demand to be taken home. Parents must remember that children below the age of seven often find it difficult to separate fiction and reality because of their overactive imaginations. Thus, movies may not be a good idea for children in this age group.
Fear of separation
Although separation anxieties are normal among infants and toddlers, they are not appropriate for older children or adolescents. They may represent symptoms of separation anxiety disorder. Children with separation anxiety may cling to their parent and have difficulty falling asleep by themselves at night. Their need to stay close to their parent or home may make it difficult for them to attend school or stay at friends’ houses, or be in a room by themselves. Fear of separation can lead to dizziness, nausea, or palpitations.
Separation anxiety is often associated with symptoms of depression, such as sadness, withdrawal, apathy, or difficulty in concentrating, and such children often fear that they or a family member might die. Young children experience nightmares or fears at bedtime. Every day parents should teach their babies to make their way in the world in many little ways.
Children with social phobias (also called social anxiety disorder) have a persistent fear of being embarrassed. In social situations such as during a performance, or if they have to speak in class or in public, get into conversation with others, or eat, drink, or write in public. Feelings of anxiety in these situations produce physical reactions like palpitations, tremors, sweating, diarrhoea, blushing, muscle tension, etc. Children, may be afraid that others will notice their anxiety and consider them odd and make fun of them.
At some point all children are afraid of being abandoned, but when parents separate, the fear of being left alone becomes all too real. The child may assume that since one parent has left, the other will too. Suddenly a child’s natural desire to explore the world becomes replaced by the anxiety of being left at home with no one. Children experiencing a divorce need extra care and the child should be made to feel safer and needs extra care. As the world can seem a threatening place to a youngster.
How to help the child?
While you may not understand the child’s fear, it is very real to her. Ridiculing the fear or chastising your child for being a coward is not going to make the situation better. Encourage her to talk about her fears. You must instill confidence in her by assuring her that nothing bad is going to happen and that you are right by her side. While it is important to be sympathetic, do not overdo it. Your child may get the message that her fears are justified. You can help the child develop the skills and confidence to overcome her fears.
The following steps will guide you in helping your child deal with her fears and anxieties.
• Recognize that the fear is real however trivial it may seem. It feels real to the child and it is causing her to feel anxious and afraid. Being able to talk about fears can help.
• Never belittle the fear as a way of forcing the child to overcome it. It won't make the fear go away.
• Parents who display frequent fears and worries themselves, or who protect their child from potentially risky experiences, will train their child to carry a larger number of fears than necessary. Read books and stories to your child about children who have experienced similar fears.
This helps children to talk about their fears and to find ways to cope.
• As with all emotions, fears become less of a problem for children as they gain self-confidence, see their world as safe, and find that fear is normal and can be dealt with.
• Some fears are normal and even helpful. But too many fears and anxiety can get in the way of enjoying everyday things like learning in school, playing with a friend. That is the time when help is needed. You should take the child to a doctor who can help find out if a medical problem is making the child feel anxious. He can help find a way to lessen the anxiety through talking, activities, relaxation exercises, medication or a combination of these things.
• Parents have to be very patient while dealing with separation anxiety in their children. If they plan to go away for a few days leaving their child in someone else’s care, they should give the child enough time to get accustomed to the new person. It has been observed that children who are used to being around different people right from a young age tend to be more independent and outgoing. Parents should not be overprotective with their children. This will just make them timid and withdrawn.