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Helping Children with Fear

Posted by on in Parenting
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A Rule of Thumb: Take children's fear as a very real event for them, even if what they are afraid of doesn't exist (e.g. a monster under the bed). A monster may not be real; but the fear is.

In looking at the brain developing according to age, a preschooler does not have the logic of an adult. Therefore, using logic to talk them out of their fears will not work. This is where compassion and comfort come in. For instance, in the scenario of walking across a slotted bridge with narrow cracks, as long as a child can see through the cracks, they think they will fall through. (Some children may be oblivious to this.) An appropriate response when the child is afraid would be to pick them up and carry them, not try to reason with them about the slots.

In very non-scientific terms, this is what happens when a child is afraid:

They are not in their frontal lobe, which is the reasoning/decision part of the brain. They are not thinking. They are just emoting. They have downshifted into the brain's limbic system, then to the brain stem, which is no thinking at all. It may become a "fight or flight" scenario for them. 

The brain stem is where they will be with huge amounts of stress hormones and no thought present. So, it would be inappropriate to ask, "What were you thinking?!" This description is not a 100% accurate representation of the physiology, but it is a simplified way to picture what is happening. 

When you have a child who is not thinking but only emoting:

  1. Dr. Becky Bailey recommends taking a technique of putting a hand on their shoulder and saying, "I'm here. You're not alone. Let's breathe together." She works with programes for emotionally challenged children.
  2. Dr. Bailey then recommends bringing humor in. (Never use mocking or put-down humor. This only does damage and brings about shame.) If they are in their limbic system, saying something off-the-wall may bring them back to thinking again. An elementary age child who has been sent with a coupon to get a certain type of dogfood, which turns out to not be stocked, gets so upset they throw a tantrum. The mother could respond by saying, "If we give Rex catfood, will he say meow?" The child may stop the tantrum and ask, "Really?!" (This works with older children.)
  3. With younger children, bringing humor in may or may not work. More often, cuddles and humming or singing calms them. It triggers the brain to remember the words and start thinking instead of emoting. Any associations to bedtime or naptime songs may calm them still more. If the child is screaming, they may be too loud to hear the singing or humming. (Kirby has tried and failed at this.) Don't try to "shush" them, unless you are louder than the child. 

Sometimes when we are afraid it turns to anger. These techniques may work. If it's not frustration, but more of an "I didn't get my own way" or an "I want attention" tantrum, do not respond in these ways.

A young child won't be able to tell you. The adult will need to think outside the current moment, to think about the big picture circumstances in their wider life. If the child has been through a trauma, we should think about whether we need to look for outside help. School counselors as well as parents can be better equipped by reading. (Here is a recommended reading: How to Talk so Kids will Listen.)

Here is what NOT to say:

  • Just grow up.
  • Stop it.

Here is what NOT to do:

  • Throw a tantrum to get the child to stop. (This is mocking.)
  • Bribery, offering them a treat. This creates an emotional attachment to food and teaches cause and effect: tantrum = treat!

The main thing is that at the end of the tantrum, when the dust has settled, give lots of love, warmth, and affection. Let the child know they have not lost your love or affection. You can say, "I will always love you, and that will never stop."