When Your Child Is Afraid

Going to the doctor is a scary thing for a lot of kids. Whether it’s due to being in an unfamiliar place, having someone poke and prod you, or the intuition that shots are coming, I see kids deal with fear and anxiety every day. Parents respond in many different ways, almost always with the goal of diffusing the situation, but with varying degrees of success. Here are a few tips for helping your child when they are feeling afraid, whether at the doctor’s office or in other life situations.

  • Recognize that fear is normal. In his excellent book, Touchpoints, pediatrician Dr. T. Berry Brazelton tells us,“Fears serve a purpose [. . .] All children go through periods of fear. Fears are usually normal and can accompany common developmental issues. Fears generate support from parents at a time when children need it.” I love that last bit. . . “fears generate support from parents at a time when children need it.” Remember that crying or tantruming is often a child’s way of letting us know that a situation is overwhelming for them and they need our help to get through it.
  • Prepare ahead of time. You know your child. If you are headed into a situation that will likely create anxiety or fear, talk about it ahead of time in a very matter-of-fact way. Don’t dwell on the fact that it may be scary, simply talk through what will happen that day. I’ve said this before about preparing for a doctor’s visit, but it applies to many of life’s situations: The more a child understands about what is going to happen, the less scary it is likely to feel.
  •  Acknowledge your child’s fear. Take the time to truly listen to your child when they tell you they are afraid. Help them see that it is natural to be afraid in some situations. Be present for them. Hold their hand or offer a hug.
  • Speak respectfully to your child. I’ve heard all of the following phrases said pretty frequently by well-meaning parents of even very young children.“Why are you acting like a baby?” “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” “Calm down right now.” “If you don’t stop crying they’re going to give you more shots.” The truth is that for your child, in that moment, there is something to be afraid of. Denying that fear or negating the feeling may only make the child feel worse, with the additional stress of the child feeling that they have disappointed you in some way. Instead of the above, try some of the following phrases.“I can see that you feel scared or nervous.” “I know this is hard, but it will be over soon.” “I am here with you and it will be okay.” “Would it help to hold my hand?”
  • Acknowledge your own fears and limitations. Fear and anxiety can also be normal in adults. Admitting to your child that you also feel afraid sometimes can be helpful. However, don’t place your own fears on your child. If a certain activity invokes too much personal fear or anxiety, arrange for your partner or another trusted adult to be with your child during that time.

Finally, remember it is more important to listen to your child’s feelings than to always fix the situation for them. Assisting them in finding their own way to handle fearful situations will help them deal with scary things in the future.

How do you help your child process fear?


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