Monthly Archives: October 2015

Fighting Fears

This month brings a lot of spooky activities as Halloween approaches. There are many ways to experience the magic of this holiday as a family, such as by sharing stories, attending community events, listening to spooky music, and reading mystery and scary books together. Sharing a few age-appropriate thrills and chills can a fun experience.

For some children, though, being scared is nothing to laugh about. Some children have heightened anxiety about a wide range of perceived threats ranging from animals to insects, characters in costumes, and things they believe lurk in the dark.

A certain amount of caution is healthy and normal for children. But parents should help kids confront unreasonable fears so they don’t grow bigger and scarier. Here are some ways to do it.

Respect feelings. Dismissing kids’ concerns isn’t the answer. Fear feels uncomfortable. Your child’s heart is racing, and he or she wants to escape to safety. Be your child’s ally and accept her anxiety. If she isn’t ready yet to pet a dog or sleep without a nightlight, don’t push it.

Search for the words. Kids can’t always express what scares them, especially when the body’s fear response is energizing them to fight or flee. Help your child identify specific concerns using age-appropriate words. Ask “What is it about the dog that worries you?” or “What might happen when the lights are off?” Defining the fear will help you combat it. You can’t devise monster-slaying strategies if you don’t know the enemy.

Find understanding. Fear festers when the imagination runs wild. The more your child learns about the feared situation, the less powerful his imaginary thoughts will be. Hold hands while you check the closet for monsters. Read about snakes or spiders together. Knowledge is power.

Stand up to fear. Encourage your child to argue against frightening thoughts or to repeat a calming phrase such as “I am fast and strong. Monsters can’t catch me!” Talking back to fear, either out loud or in your head, shrinks scary thoughts. One parent recalls how her son was sure there were creatures under the bed and in the closet. “We put a sign on the door that read ‘Monsters KEEP OUT’ and they obeyed,” she says.

Take baby steps. “The best way to face a fear is a little at a time, from a safe distance,” says author and family therapist H. Norman Wright. For example, help your child face a fear of heights by imagining the scary situation first. Then, move on to climbing a low structure, followed by a taller one, and so on. Give high-fives as kids conquer each challenge.

Be there. Kids need to know you’ll stick with them when they face their fears. If your child’s fears and anxiety are truly crippling, you might consider getting help from counsellor, therapist, or other child development expert.

This column is adapted from an article by Heidi Smith Luedtke, PhD.


When Harvard University’s Making Caring Common Project released their report, “The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Messages Adults Are Sending About Values,” the study found that many kids value academic achievement and individual happiness over caring for others. In the report, the authors explained that the children’s values reflected what they believe the adults in their lives value.
We live in an age in which we are more and more connected by technology, but this connectedness doesn’t seem “to be translating to genuine concern for the world and one another.” Research from the University of Michigan has shown that college kids today are nearly 40% less empathetic than they were 30 to 40 years ago.
In the wake of these disturbing study results, the Making Caring Common Project and the Ashoka Empathy Initiative created a set of recommendations for teaching empathy to children.
Empathy goes beyond being able to see another person’s point of view, according to Rick Weissbourd, the co-director of the Making Caring Common Project. He points out that sales people, politicians, actors and marketers are able to do this kind of “perspective-taking” in pursuit of their professional goals. Con men and women use this ability to manipulate their victims for personal gain. In order to be truly empathetic, children need to learn more than simple perspective-taking; they need to know how to value, respect and understand another person’s views, even when they don’t agree with them. Empathy, Mr. Weissbourd argues, is a function of both compassion and of seeing from another person’s perspective; and it is the key to preventing bullying and other forms of cruelty and discrimination.
To that end, the project offers these five suggestions for developing empathy in children:
1. Empathize with your child and model how to feel compassion for others.
Kids develop these qualities by watching us and experiencing our empathy for them. When we show that we truly know our children by understanding and reacting to their emotional needs, exhibiting interest and involvement in their lives, and respecting their personalities, they feel valued. Children who feel valued are more likely to value others and demonstrate respect for their needs. When we treat other people like they matter, our kids notice, and are more likely to emulate our acts of caring and compassion.
2. Make caring for others a priority and set high ethical expectations.
Kids need to know that we are not simply paying lip service to empathy, that we show caring and compassion in our everyday lives. Rather than say, “The most important thing is that you are happy,” try: “The most important thing is that you’re kind and that you are happy.” Prioritize caring when you talk about others, and help your child understand that the world does not revolve around them or their needs.
3. Provide opportunities for children to practice.
Empathy, like other emotional skills, requires repetition to become second nature. Hold family meetings and involve kids by challenging them to listen to and respect others’ perspectives. Ask children about conflicts at school and help them reflect on their classmates’ experiences. If another child is unpopular or having social problems, talk about how that child may be feeling about the situation, and ask your child how he or she may be able help.
4. Expand your child’s circle of concern.
It’s not hard for kids to empathize with their immediate family and close friends, but it can be a real challenge to understand and feel for people outside of that circle. You can help your child expand their circle by “zooming in and zooming out”; listening carefully to a particular person and then pulling back to take in multiple perspectives. Encourage your child to talk about and speculate on the feelings of people who are particularly vulnerable or in need. Talk about how those people could be helped and comforted.
5. Help children develop self-control and manage feelings effectively.
Even when kids feel empathy for others, societal pressures and prejudices can block their ability to express their concern. When kids are angry with each other over a perceived slight, for example, it can be a real challenge for them to engage their sense of empathy. Encourage kids to name those stereotypes and prejudices, and to talk about their anger, envy, shame and other negative emotions. Model conflict resolution and anger management in your own actions, and let your kids see you work through challenging feelings in your own life.
Educators will tell you that a classroom full of empathetic kids simply runs more smoothly than one filled with even the happiest group of self-serving children. Similarly, family life is more harmonious when siblings are able feel for each other and put the needs of others ahead of individual happiness. If a classroom or a family full of caring children makes for a more peaceful and cooperative learning environment, just imagine what we could accomplish in a world populated by such children.
This column was adapted from an article by Jessica Lahey, an educator, writer, and speaker. She writes about parenting and education.