Fear is real, but often your child’s fears are unwarranted and not very realistic. The Boogeyman isn’t hiding in the closet, and bullfrogs might be slimy and gross, but they’re not truly scary (okay, maybe a little).
Everyone—from the youngest child to the oldest adult—experiences fear at one time or another. In fact, most kids face some type of phobia on a regular basis. Some fears are okay (e.g. fear of touching a hot stove), but a lot of anxiety is irrational and unwarranted.
Typical childhood fears change with age, but when anxieties persist, they can take a toll on a child’s sense of worth and well-being. Tragically, worry that stems from scary childhood experiences torments too many adults.
As the parent, you tend to know when your child is feeling afraid. The signs are often evident:
- nervous looks and movements
- clinginess or withdrawal
- unusual problems getting to sleep or waking up
- accelerated heart and breathing rates
- sweaty hands, headaches, stomachaches, etc.
My six-year-old grandson, Caleb, is terrified of dogs. He won’t go near them. His facial expression and body language make it clear—he’s not going anywhere near any dog no matter how little or happy the animal seems.
No dog has ever attacked Caleb or bitten him. If you ask him why he’s afraid, he’ll just shrug his shoulders and say, “I don’t know.” And if you happen to say to him that all dogs go to heaven, he’ll tell you he’s decided not to go there if that’s the case.
So what can a parent or grandparent do?
When you notice your child is afraid, you should encourage him or her to share their feelings with you. Get down at your child’s eye level and say with sincerity, “Tell me how you’re feeling; I want to know how I can help you.”
You don’t want to shame the child by saying, “You shouldn’t be afraid, how silly.” I’m almost sixty, but I remember a time when my grandfather embarrassed me in front of my siblings for being afraid to climb to the top of a tree with my younger brother. I forgave him over fifty years ago, but I’ve never forgotten the pain of that shameful moment.
Instead of shame or irritation, lend a kind, listening, and caring ear. As James writes, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” James 1:19 (NIV). You might be able to force a child to do something, but you cannot force a child to overcome fear. On the other hand, just talking about a fear can help your child move past it.
That being said, don’t negatively reinforce fears either. You can open the closet doors, but don’t permanently remove doors in an attempt to eliminate a fear of monsters. If your child doesn’t like dogs, don’t deliberately cross the street to avoid one. Avoidance will just reinforce the notion that dogs should be feared or that monsters live in dark places.
Do provide gentle support and encouragement as you approach the feared object or situation with your child. Be consistent and uncomplaining as you give them time to grow. Take the time to listen, and make sure your child feels heard.
If you don’t patiently help your son or daughter walk through the fear barriers of life, the phobia is likely to continue to affect your child, possibly even into adulthood.
Most important, always encourage your son or daughter to tell God how they feel. Teach them to remember that they are never alone because their good and faithful Father is always near. Pray with them about their fear and help them learn how to take any concern to Jesus.
Facing fear isn’t easy, but helping your child overcome terror is worth the time and effort.