When you comfort your frightened child, you help him feel safe. This sense of security gives him the courage he needs to eventually face and conquer his fears. All young children are afraid of something at one point or another, whether it's thunder, large dogs, bees, the dark or imaginary things, like monsters under the bed.
And some children are just naturally more fearful than others - it's their temperament. Fears seem to be especially common between three and six years of age, as a child's ability to think about and remember frightening possibilities increases.
Here are some things to consider when comforting your fearful child.
- Remember that your child's fear is very real to her, even if you don't really understand what she is afraid of, or you don't think it's something that should frighten a child. Deal with it seriously. Never belittle the fear as a way of forcing your child to overcome it. Telling your child, "Don't be ridiculous! It's just a clown" won't help.
- Sitting down and talking to your child about his fears is important. Words have a way of taking some of the power out of negative emotions, and making them more manageable for young children.
- No child should be forced into dealing with something she is afraid of before she is ready. When you feel she can handle it, gently encourage your child to confront a fear by gradually exposing her to what she finds frightening. For example, if your baby or very young child is afraid of the noise of the vacuum cleaner, take it slow. Give her a chance to touch the vacuum when it's turned off, or have someone else turn it on while you're holding and comforting her. Gradually, her fear will lessen as her feelings of safety and security increase.
- If you show excessive concern when your child is upset, you may unintentionally reinforce his fears, giving him the impression that there really is something to fear. Sometimes, just providing age-appropriate information in a calm and reassuring tone can be helpful: "That's a very loud noise, isn't it? It's an ambulance. It must be on its way to help someone."
- Prepare your child for things you expect will be scary for her. If you're visiting a friend who has a dog, for instance, tell your child about the dog before you arrive, reassuring her that "the dog is friendly and gentle and really likes kids." Give her the opportunity to talk through any concerns she has in advance, and together you can develop a plan to help her cope when she eventually encounters the source of her fear. For example, you both pat the dog together, and she offers him a biscuit to show that she is a friend.
- Keep reminding your child of the things that he is no longer afraid of. This will help him feel empowered, and realize that it is possible to overcome other fears too.
Learning to deal with fear is an important part of growing up, and can greatly increase your child's confidence. Therefore, you play a big role in gently and gradually helping your child confront and overcome these fears. But remember, let him work up to it. And if he gets upset, be comforting, and hold him calmly, and reassure him that he'll be okay.