How to help kids face their fears
I don't really know how to write about this, but I’ll give it a try. How do you help your child face their fears when you yourself are afraid of just about everything - heights, airplanes, the dark, bugs, doctors, etc.? You name it, I’m afraid of it. Some of my fears are innate, others developed over time, and some emerged after I had children.
I came to understand that caution is desirable, but that we must not let fear take over our lives. If we’re afraid of planes, it doesn’t mean we won’t fly because we have to arrive on time for that meeting or reach our holiday destination. Nobody likes hospitals, but that doesn't mean we won't go to the doctor when we feel sick, right?
I never pretended to be a "by the book Mom". My daughter had this ritual of climbing into my bed in the middle of the night until she was almost nine years old. She would bring her pillow and blanket, carefully step over me, and snuggle beside me. There were no dramas and nightmares that preceded it. She just liked it. And so did I.
And I let her climb into my bed every night, despite what some psychologists might say about it. She told me that when she wakes up during the night, she thinks that there might be a snake under her bed and that she can't go back to sleep. Maybe she made it up so she wouldn’t sleep in her own bed or maybe she had some other reason for sneaking into my bed.
Sure, there was no snake under her bed, but we should always listen to what our kids are saying. This was a completely irrational fear that we were able to break down bit by bit. Never trivialize fears, never tell a child that they’re silly for being afraid of something, because none of their emotions, positive or negative, are silly.
So, I told her that it was extremely unlikely that a snake could reach the tenth floor of our high-rise in the city, unless it inconspicuously followed us from the zoo and asked the neighbors in the elevator what our apartment number was, and then snuck behind the postwoman who brought us the bills. I remember that made her laugh. And she’s absolutely fearless now, willing to try every single extreme sport, any adrenaline boosting activity.
Don’t get me wrong, I certainly don’t think that she turned out like that because she slept in my bed until the age of 9. If it were a universal recipe, I wouldn’t have my other daughter, her mother’s child, scared of everything.
Something close to a universal recipe would be to rationalize our children's fears as much possible. If he or she is afraid of flying, keep explaining how safe it is to fly, give them statistics, explain the benefits. They might not accept it as a given fact, but the bottom line should be (as is the case with my daughter): “I don’t like to fly, but I like going to London more”. Or, what happened one summer: “I'm terrified of boats, but I want to see Venice”. I asked her why she was afraid of boats, and she replied: “Seriously?!? Did we not watch Titanic together?!”
And then, we talked. “We’re not crossing an ocean,” I said. “If you never want to do it, I understand, because I don’t either, but maybe you’ll want to go sailing with your friends and then you’ll change your mind. All we’re doing now is going from coast to coast, crossing a mild sea. Also, if we go by bus, it’ll take forever.” She said ok, and didn’t regret it.
Children love explanations. They crave them because they’re like little sponges, absorbing knowledge and experience.
Basically, when they’re little, our kids will be afraid of what they don’t know or what causes them pain. That’s when we need to show them how to overcome their fears. You’re afraid of needles and don’t like doctors? Well, deal with it. Don’t pass your anxiety onto your kid. Put your superhero face on and hold their hand next time you take them to the doctor.
The first day in preschool or school, the first time they spend the night apart - your stomach turns, but just imagine how they feel? Those are the moments when it’s absolutely necessary for us as parents to be strong as a rock, even if we don’t feel like it. That’s why we’re the parents and they’re the kids.
The good news? Fears come and go. And they’re all manageable. And even if we’re not the person who can solve our kids’ problems, there is no shame in that. There are people who are trained to do just that, so let’s not hesitate to ask for professional help.