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Helping Children Conquer Fear

Who's afraid of the big, bad wolf? When you were 4 or 5 years old, you probably were. If you have children this age, you can count on their exhibiting fears of wild animals, monsters and the dark, whether you come from Cleveland or Hong Kong, London or L.A.

But have no fear. It's a normal part of their development, experts say. You need the experience of mastering fear as a child in order to be competent as an adult. If you think of sports success as being the result of practice, then it's easy to understand why practicing dealing with your fears is good.

Studies indicate that almost all children report having fears. Some of the most common fears are of bugs or ghosts, and studies have shown that kids are afraid of pretty much the same things no matter where they live in the world.

What are those common fears, and when do they typically turn up in children's lives?

  • Infants 5 to 12 months old are afraid of objects coming toward them and sudden noises. They also have a wariness of strangers, although that depends on their family and how much they're around other people.

  • Toddlers' fears center on their relationship with their parents and fears of being left alone. They will go off to play but will constantly check back with the parent; they recognize they are vulnerable.

  • For kids ages 3 and 4, there's the fear of animals, snakes, the dark, and monsters. At this age, they can't always separate what's reality and what's fantasy—in their minds, if they dreamed it, it really did happen. This is the age when nightmares occur.

  • For most children, there's a significant drop in fears at about age 5. That picks up again around age 6, when their fears are in terms of self-concept—Will I pass a test? Will other children like me?

Typical fears of older children

  • At age 7, fears grow out of ideas suggested by television and movies, performance in school or dark spaces.

  • At ages 8 and 9, school or personal failure, ridicule by peers and disease are common fears.

  • In early adolescence (ages 10 to 12), children often fear heights, criminals, older kids, parental anger, and remote possibilities of catastrophe and school failure.

  • Older teens tend to express fear about changes in their bodies, isolation, sex, and world events.

Whatever you do, experts say, don't force children to face a fear unless they want to. It would be wrong, for instance, to put a child who's afraid of snakes into a room full of snakes without preparing the child for the experience.

If you know in advance about a situation that will most likely be emotionally upsetting to your child, plan ahead. If you're moving, introduce your child to the new home beforehand, if you can. If you're taking a vacation without your children, make sure the babysitter comes to the house a lot before the vacation.

Diversions are another tactic for offsetting fearful events. If your child is going to the doctor's office for a shot, try doing something fun or interesting on the way home. Or bring his or her favorite books to the office to read.

What's important is to find solutions that are appropriate to children. Be sure you've tuned into your child's emotions, not your own. Then find ways that work to cope with those fears from the child's point of view. Some possibilities: Add a nightlight, keep the door cracked open, do a "monster check" each day, get a stuffed animal that's designed to fight monsters. Help your child develop a routine to deal with the fear.

Above all, experts say, remember to keep things in perspective. A lot of normal fears are going to pass, given time. The child who is terrified of monsters and can't get to sleep for a month will say six months later, "Gee, I used to be afraid of monsters."

One kid's fright is another's delight

Imagine a box sitting on a table. You are asked to reach into the box through a hole just big enough for your hand. You do. Something grabs your hand. How would you react?

As a child, you'd probably have had one of three reactions when you discovered it was a puppet that grabbed your hand: You'd be totally delighted and laugh; you'd be startled but put your hand back in to let the puppet shake it; or you'd be frightened and refuse to go anywhere near the box again.

Why is it that kids with similar experiences have such different responses? Perhaps it's the parents. If the parent says, 'That must've been scary," the parent is reinforcing the child's reality.

An alternative might be to say, "Let's go see the puppet. Oh, this is really neat." You're helping the child to see that his or her own ideas affect how he or she sees the situation.

The child who laughs at the puppet clearly sees novel events as a source of humor, which reinforces that child's view of the world as a fun, interesting place. That's likely to make things a lot easier for that child growing up.