We know from the previous blog that a certain amount of anxiety is a necessary part of life, but what do we do when fear begins to rule someone’s life? And especially if that someone is our child?
Short of getting professional help or using medication, what tools can help build more strength and resiliency to face common fears and phobias? What’s the best way to help our children move forward in a world that will always have dangers?
Tip #1: Listen to their feelings. The first step in conquering fear, paradoxically, is to learn to listen to our feelings. Some amount of fear is appropriate and helps us avoid danger. A good example of this is teaching your child not to rush up to pet an unfamiliar animal or to look both ways before crossing the street. Some dogs bite, and some drivers are distracted or careless.
Don’t send the message to your child that fear is bad. Fear is more like a yellow light that warns us to use caution.Emotional intelligence begins with self-awareness, the ability to recognize our different feelings as they occur and to name them and examine what causes them.The next step is learning how to harness our emotions rather than allowing them to run wild and dominate our thinking.
Tip #2: Teach them to find a balance of expression of feelings. Healthy families are able to express feelings constructively, striking a balance between holding too much in and letting too much out. When communicated in non-blaming ways, both positive and negative feelings can build greater understanding and intimacy. Just being able to talk about what we are afraid of and not feel judged or ridiculed can lessen the grip that fear holds over us.
Tip #3: Talk about it together. Here’s a concrete example of how, as a parent, you might help your child develop more emotional intelligence. Think about something that makes your son or daughter fearful or anxious. One of the most common fears of adults and children alike is the fear of public speaking. Although not everyone has to make speeches to large audiences, for many children just answering a question in class or offering a suggestion to a group can be intimidating. If your child gives in to the fear and stays quiet, this uncomfortable feeling may go away temporarily but it has managed to rule the moment.
Tip #4: Don’t use ridicule. Explain to your child that everyone has to struggle with some kind of fear or worry, but with your support and with a little practice, we all can learn to put unnecessary fear behind us.
Here are a few warnings about what not to do…Never make fun of your child, particularly in front of his peers or siblings. Parents and older siblings are sometimes tempted to use teasing as a way of encouraging a young child to face imagined worries. This strategy almost always backfires, making the child not only resist but feel too embarrassed to talk about it with you.
Tip #5: Don’t use punishment. Do not try to coerce or use force or threats of punishment to get your child to act brave. This tactic may work in the moment but does not address the source of the fear or give your child the feeling of strength and accomplishment that comes when he or she feels she has conquered the fear.
Tip #6: Be patient. It takes time, and therefore patience, to confront and gradually overcome anxiety. The best strategy is to encourage your child to come face-to-face with whatever he fears a little bit at a time. You can help your child by talking openly about it, naming it as a normal fear that you also have had to get over. Express how confident you are that your child will eventually be able to do whatever it is he or she is afraid of.
Tip #7: Talk about the worst and best scenarios. Another great tool is to have your child think for a minute about the very worst thing that might happen if he does whatever he is afraid of, and then have him list all the possible good things that might happen. Show her how to take a few deep breaths to help ease the tension when it arises or to shake the fear out of the body.
I share with kids (and adults too) how I used to sing the song, “Who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf?” in my head every time I had to give a report in front of the class. I still use the song as an adult. It makes me laugh which instantly makes my fear begin to shrink like magic.
Tip #8: Reinforce courage. Another useful technique is to bring up your child’s strengths. Remind them of other fears that they have already faced and conquered–like how they cried when they first went to school and now they jump out of the car and run to class. Be vigilant for times your child is not afraid in daily life, and openly praise strength or courage.
Tip #9: Talk to a professional if the fear persists or keeps your child from participating in everyday life. Sometimes, even if you try doing everything above, your child’s fear just don’t go away. Consult with your pediatrician or a mental health professional who specializes with children and families.
Tip #10: Face your own fears. One last reminder…our children are sponges, soaking up whatever feelings surround them. One of the best gifts you can give your children is to face your own fears. As you lower your level of anxiety, you might notice that some of your child’s fears just magically disappear. Be brave and give it a try.