When you comfort your frightened child, you are helping him feel safe. This sense of security gives him the courage he needs to eventually face and conquer his fears. It's normal for all youngsters to be afraid of something at one point or another, whether it's thunder, large dogs, bees, the dark or imaginary things such as ugly monsters under the bed. And some children's temperaments make them naturally more fearful than others. Fears seem to be especially common between three and six years of age, when a child's ability to think about and remember scary things increases.
Here are some things to consider when you are comforting your fearful child.
- Even if you don't really understand what your child is afraid of, or you don't think it's something that should frighten her, remember that the fear is very real to her, so deal with it seriously. Never belittle the fear as a way of forcing her to overcome it. For example, it won't help matters if you say, "Don't be ridiculous! It's just a clown."
- It's important to talk to your child about his fears. 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 toddler is afraid of the sound the vacuum cleaner makes, let her touch it when it is turned off, or have someone else turn on the vacuum while you hold and comfort her. Gradually, she will become less afraid as her feelings of safety and security increase.
- If you show excessive concern when your child is upset, you may unintentionally reinforce your child's fears, giving him the impression that there really is something to be afraid of. Sometimes just providing age-appropriate information in a calm and reassuring tone can be helpful. For example, you might say, "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 frighten her. For example, if you're visiting a friend who has a dog, tell your child about the dog before you arrive, reassuring her that the dog is friendly and gentle and really likes children. Give her the opportunity to talk about 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. Maybe you'll both pat the dog together, or she'll offer him a biscuit to show that she's his friend.
- Keep reminding your child of the things that he is no longer afraid of. This will help him feel empowered, and he'll realize that it's 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 his fears. But remember, let him work up to it. And if he gets upset, comfort him, hold him calmly and reassure him that he'll be OK.