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All feelings are real. A child’s fears are very real and young children have to be taught how to deal with them.
Over a decade ago I wrote in these pages that everybody experiences fear and anxiety. Fear is the word we use when the object is identified lik, fear of dogs or thunder. Anxiety is that sensation we get when we feel helpless about the unknown or when we experience a vague, uneasy feeling not immediately associated with anything. Fear is not only a common and normal feeling, it is important to our survival. Fear alerts us to the presence of danger so we can protect ourselves.
Fear is developmentally determined. Virtually all preschoolers fear monsters, thunder, and animals. Fear is not a sign of weakness although some parents worry about this especially in boys. Fears in children, unless incapacitating, are not indicative of either an emotional problem or future cowardice.
Case in point: a 2 ½ year old boy, who had previously enjoyed his Montessori preschool, tearfully said he did not want to go to school anymore. His parents asked why and he answered, “I just don’t want to.” The parents soothed him, told him he would like school when he went inside (true), and said all kids felt that way sometimes. But the morning uneasiness persisted so the parents asked the teacher if anything had happened at school. She reported that a few days earlier during outdoor play a noisy garbage truck had pulled in behind the schoolyard and slammed the trash containers to the ground. The fence hid what was happening so to the children it was a scary, unexplained loud noise like thunder.
The boy’s father told Joshua he knew there had been a loud scary noise at school and even the teacher had jumped! He then said when he was a boy he was frightened of loud noises until his Dad explained what made the thunder so noisy.
Father and Josh talked about what made the loud crash behind the fence and why engines and machinery made different noises. They agreed when the garbage truck rattled behind the fence Joshua could cover his ears. Or he could tell a littler child it was just the trash can hitting the ground.
This dialogue illustrates what savvy parents should do when a young child has fears.
• Figure out what the child is afraid of.
• Acknowledge the fear and give it a name. (Loud garbage truck)
• Tell the child you had a similar fear when you were young (It’s OK to make this up.) Children are remarkably reassured by the dyad of parental calmness and parental recounting of their own childhood feelings.
• Expect the child to deal with the fear and provide hints to mastery. (You have to go to school but you can cover your ears and help smaller children.)
• Reassure. Reassure. Reassure. “When you are bigger loud noises won’t upset you.”
Newborn babies instinctively jump when exposed to a sudden loud noise. However when young children express fear (“I don’t want to go to school.” or “I don’t want to go to sleep, there is a monster under the bed.”) they are using their developing brain. They have learned to recognize the concept of danger. As they mature and as we empower them with knowledge, they will be able to sort out realistic dangers from imagined ones.
Our goal as parents? We want our children to have a healthy fear of realistic dangers like the automobile, but we don’t want them to be so fearful that they will never cross a street.
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