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Winifred Lender: Monsters Under the Bed — Understanding, Conquering Childhood Fears

Fear is a normal emotion that warns us of danger and helps children learn adaptive coping skills. The focus of children’s fears changes with age. Young children generally go through a period of being fearful of things, such as separation from a parent, strangers, being lost, the dark and monsters. These fears disappear as a child ages and may be replaced with fears related to natural disasters, their parents’ health, and school and or social performance. Some child fears develop based on personal experiences, such as being nipped by a dog, or by observing a parent or other adult react with fear to a certain situation.

Children and adults have an innate fight or flight response that is triggered in a situation of perceived danger. Once activated, our body automatically prepares itself to either fight or flee from a situation by increasing muscle tension, blood flow, heart rate and pupil dilation. While adaptive, this response can be triggered erroneously when we are not actually in danger, and can be reinforced by our own actions. We may avoid the situation that first triggered our fear even though we realize the fear is unfounded, further reinforcing the fear. Often, the effort it takes to avoid the feared object or event becomes all encompassing and anxiety producing.

Parents who minimize their child’s exposure to a feared object or event in an effort to decrease their child’s fear, may be inadvertently strengthening the fear. For example, parents of a child who is fearful of dogs may cross the street when they see a dog coming to avoid their child being close to the dog. While well-intended, these efforts actually reinforce the fear cycle: the child avoids the feared object and is not allowed the opportunity to overcome the fear and realize that the unease will decrease over time.

Fears typically are outgrown or can be overcome by engaging in the feared activity. However, some fears may be strengthened over time. If a fear significantly limits a child’s interactions or causes significant distress to the child or family, it may be considered a phobia. To prevent a fear from becoming a phobia, a child needs to be supported in confronting the fear and developing a plan to attack the cognitions and behaviors that are mantaining the fear.

Developing a fear hierarchy can be essential in helping the child gain success in combating small measureable components of the greater fear. The child who is fearful of dogs may start by reading books about dogs, watching videos of dogs, walking near small dogs on a leash near his home, and eventually petting a dog. Children will learn that the fear response eventually fades and that they can gain control of their fear by using certain self-talk statements, relaxation strategies, deep breathing and visualization. With each component part of a fear they overcome, the child practices the requisite skills necessary to combat the next component of the fear and feels emboldened to attack the bigger fear.

Among the strategies that can help you support a child in overcoming a fear:

» Never discount or belittle a child’s fears.

» Be aware that certain fears are development-related and will be outgrown with no intervention.

» Model for a child how you deal with your fears.

» Be optimistic and supportive, and let your child know that he or she will overcome the fear.

» Practice self-soothing strategies with your child, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and imagery that he or she can utilize to calm down when fearful.

» Remember that by allowing your child to completely avoid a feared object or event, the fear may be strengthened or reinforced.

» Work with your child to clarify the fear. A child’s fear often may at first appear very global (fear of all dogs), but upon closer inspection it may be narrower (fear of big dogs not on a leash).

» Help your child rate their fears using a visual image such as a thermometer. Support them in learning that there are different levels of fear and discomfort.

» Develop a fear hierarchy with your child. Place the most feared action or event at the top and events that are less frightening in descending order. For example, a child who is fearful of dogs might find petting a dog very anxiety provoking, while walking near a dog on a leash of medium fear, and watching a video of dogs of a low level of fear.

» Use the hierarchy along with reinforcement to encourage your child to confront their fear. Each time they feel fearful but are able to deal with the situation, they realize that their anxiety does decrease.

» If your child’s fear is causing significant distress to him or her or the family or is limiting their daily activities, and he or she is not responding to the suggested interventions, consider consulting with a psychologist or other mental health specialist.

Now go help your child chase those monsters out from under the bed!

— Winifred Lender Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Santa Barbara and can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). She provides cognitive-behavioral therapy for sleep regulation issues, anxiety and depression, and completed her undergraduate work at Cornell University and received her master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed a fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia/The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and is a past president of the Santa Barbara County Psychological Association. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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