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.