Parenting the Fearful Child

161792239Kids get scared about stuff.  Heck, we all fear stuff.  While fear is actually a healthy response to a threat, sometimes we can fear things that are perfectly safe or even good for us.  For example, I hate big parties.   A few friends are okay, but giant gatherings of people I don’t know with no other purpose than socializing makes me very anxious.  I would rather stick my head in the toilet than . . . mingle.  AAAGH!   The reasons for this anxiety are complex, but the fact is, it has prevented me from attending some functions that I might have enjoyed.

Hopefully I will get over my anxiety about big parties some day, but I sense it’s with me to stay.  This knowledge and experience makes me more motivated to ensure I respond to my children’s fears with sensitivity and wisdom.  I can so empathize with children and their fearfulness.  Imagine how things look to them, when they have so little life experience, when their sense of safety and security depends entirely on others.

The Theology of the Body tells us that we are created for communion and connection – with God and with one another – but fearfulness and anxiety can actually prevent our children from having the peace of mind required for receptiveness to others.  They can become frozen in a state of fear and survival.  Why are children frequently fearful and what we can we do to help them through their fears?  This is the topic I explored recently with Greg & Lisa Popcak on their radio show More2Life.  Here’s a link to the whole show, which I encourage you to dive into!  The Popcaks always have amazing insight on the topics they explore and while I was waiting for my segment I was astounded how they cut to the heart of anxiety and fearfulness, not just in children but in us as well.

Here are a few points I made on the show:

Understanding Childhood Fears

Let’s begin by considering why children are fearful in the first place.

  1. All children experience anxiety or fear on occasion.  Most childhood fears are very normal: kids are experiencing new things all the time and often need our help figuring out whether it’s safe or scary.
  2. Children face fear at every developmental stage:  Infants fear the absence of their parent; preschoolers enjoy the gift of their wonderful, emerging imagination, but it can lead to scary thoughts that they have a hard time processing; school aged kids start to fear real world dangers like fires, crime, illness; teens fear social rejection and even bigger problems in the world that they hear about on school and in the media.
  3. Kids have different temperaments and tolerance for stress: Some children fear things that a sibling finds fascinating; children can become fearful about different things as they move through developmental phases.

Helping Your Child Through His Fears

  1. Let her talk about it:  Childhood fears are very common and usually an understanding parent and little support, along with time, is all that’s needed to overcome them.
  2. Empathize:  Help your child feel understood.  Share a similar experience from your own childhood or mirror her feelings (“wow, you must have been so surprised when you saw that big dog running toward you!). Put her experience into words for her for she understands them better.
  3. Understand the emotional factors in your home environment that, according to scientific research, can either encourage or protect against childhood fearfulness

PARENTING PRACTICES THAT PROTECT CHILDREN AGAINST FEARFULNESS:

  • An authoritative parenting style:  authoritative parents are responsive and nurturing, but also guide and direct their child’s behavior and they have high expectations for their children.  They also encourage their children to share their thoughts, fears, and opinions.
  • Parental anxiety management:  We parents must avoid displays of distress or excessive concern about our own problems.  Don’t discuss money troubles in front of the kids or use them as a sounding board when you’re upset about something.
  • Value family communication and problem solving:  we must foster a very open emotional environment in our homes.  Ensure that at gatherings everyone is welcome to talk, and mutual problem-solving is part of your family culture.
  • Respond to child’s anxious behavior without anger or excessive worry:  Parents can empathize with their child’s concerns without communicating their own concern over the matter; we can model for our child the appropriate level of concern while supporting him through the experience

PARENTING PRACTICES THAT ENCOURAGE FEARFULNESS:

  • An authoritarian parenting style: authoritarian parents demand unquestioned obedience from their child and the child suffers harsh consequences for disobeying.  Children raised this way don’t feel safe with their parent, they don’t trust their parent emotionally.  This anxiety is toxic.
  • Parental over-control: these parents are very intrusive physically and emotionally; they even control conversations
  • Highlighting dangers in child’s environment:  These parents are excessively cautious, freaking out every time their child makes an effort to take a risk.  “Don’t climb too high!  Be careful!  Oh my gosh!”
  • Tolerance or encouragement of avoidance behavior:  These parents make a habit of agreeing that the child shouldn’t try something that’s difficult.
  • Rejection:  Having a parenting style that is basically judgmental, disapproving, or critical of the child makes it hard for the child to develop confidence and a sense of emotional safety.
  • Conflict:  A lot of fighting, arguing, disharmony between family members raises a child’s adrenaline on a regular basis, making it part of his emotional make-up.

4.     Play the fear out!

All human beings need time for leisure and release, especially children!  Plenty of play time alone and with the family is important for our child’s mental health and sense of peace.

Play therapists use play as a way to help a child process things that are bothering her.  If your child is fearful about a specific experience – going to school, visiting grandma, talking to new people – try to find a way to practice these experiences through play and observe what your child says or does.  These clues help us understand the better the root of our child’s fear so that we can help her confront it.  So if your child is fearful about attending school, play school where you are the student and she is the teacher and let her lead you through the play.  It’s possible no big light bulbs will come on for you, but just the act of turning her fear into a game is helpful in itself – it gives her a chance to practice the thing that she fears and in a way that she can control.

5.      Prayer

Helping our child develop the habit of turning to God during times of fear and anxiety is a gift that she will carry with her into adulthood.  Pray with her about her fear:  ask the Blessed Mother to wrap her arms around your child and place those fears in the hands of Jesus, who will know what to do with them; help your child pray the Rosary one of the most calming, meditative devotions, or pray to St. Dymphna, the patron saint of anxiety.

Cause for Concern

While all children experience some fear, some children are dealing with a more serious form of anxiety.  If your child exaggerates the danger or risk of an experience or if your child’s fears keep from participating in family events, leaving the house, or playing with friends, you should discuss these issues with your pediatrician or a mental health professional.   Childhood shouldn’t be something your child has to suffer through!

RESOURCES 

Freeing Your Child From Anxiety by Tamar Chansky, PhD

The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron

For counseling or a consultation about your child’s anxiety, please consider Dr. Popcak’s own tele-counseling services, the Pastoral Solutions Institute.  For childhood anxiety, he takes a parent-led approach.

Photo credit: Sebra, photos.com

Comments

  1. I’m sorry you had that kind of painful upbringing, Janet. I am amazed how parenting my own children heals old wounds, some that I thought were gone.

    Severe, authoritarian parenting not only instills fear in children, it also prevents them from developing emotional openness, confidence in new experiences, and even a basic ability to enjoy life’s little moments — the beauty of a sunrise, the companionship of good friends around the dinner table, etc.

  2. Growing up, I did not have an open communication with my parents. They were more on the authoritative parenting style, especially my father. I learned that lack of communication and right amount of attention impacts a child greatly. I have a cousin who’s parents practice the same parenting style as mine, she never really got out of her shell and feared people and even had a hard time with making decisions. Now that I have a kid, I will make sure that I keep an open line of communication between us and I will make sure that I will be there whenever she feels afraid. Thank you for this, it made me learn a lot.

  3. Great advice on helping a child to heal emotionally and mentally.

    It is also possible to nurture their core, spirit by making eye contact, calling their spirit to attention and INVITING them GENTLY to receive the blessings of God,
    ..peace, joy, love …

    then remind the child that
    God loves them,
    you love them
    and INVITE them to relax into that steadfast love

    especially powerful when whisperered gently while they sleep
    important..NEVER try to control or order a kid’s deep inner self

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