The other day a friend of mine said to me, “My son (who is four) is suddenly afraid of going up the stairs in the house. What should I do?”
“Well”, I said, “Go up the stairs with him.”
It was my first reaction, as it made perfect sense. He’s four; something happened that elicited a new fear. We don’t know (and he probably doesn’t know) what caused it. But he does know that his fear is real. And he can’t make it up those stairs by himself right now. He needs help.
As we all know, fear is a powerful emotion that we experience strongly in our bodies.
It can either energize us to take action, or sometimes, be so overwhelming that we are paralyzed by it. If you know how it feels to experience fear as an adult, with our capacity for reason and understanding of how the world works, imagine how fear feels to a child who cannot reason well and has little real world experience.
Children experience fear very early on in their lives.
Small babies get frightened when their mother (or father) isn’t holding them. As babies get older and have a clear sense of whom they know and whom they don’t know, they can get frightened by strangers or terrified when their mother or father leaves the room.
As children get into the later toddler and early preschool years, they develop vivid imaginations.
Their sense of reality is very fragile. When we read them books and tell them stories they find it all in the realm of the possible. We tell them about Santa Claus riding through the sky with reindeer because we know at their age they believe anything and everything. It makes perfect sense that they would be afraid of things that we think its silly to be afraid of – like what is at the top of the stairs.
Nighttime can be particularly scary to children.
Strange noises heard, strange shadows cast, memories of a frightening experience all are magnified when children are lying alone in their beds. Children may suddenly be afraid of going to sleep for fear of being in the dark by themselves. Nightmares are common in preschool children and they don’t know if the nightmares are real or not.
As adults, our worries can interfere with our sleep, or cause us to wake up in a state of anxiety. If we are lucky, we have a loving partner whom we can wake up and ask for support or just a warm cuddle.
Fear is a very lonely feeling and we all want reassurance and help to deal with it.
And so do our children. There is an old saying that only love can conquer fear. And when children are experiencing fears they need lots of love, understanding, explanations about what is real, and support in helping them to face those fears. Lots of trips up the stairs with you to show them that there is nothing scary at the top. Encourage them to go a few steps on their own, and then go with them the rest of the way. Eventually they will go the whole way on their own. This approach, gradual “desensitization”, works well for most fears.
If they are afraid of going to sleep or are waking frightened in the middle of the night, sit with them until they feel safe or let them crawl into bed with you if they need to.
You want them to know that you are there for them and that together you can help them overcome their fears. A night-light may help, and some people use “monster spray” if their child is afraid of monsters.
Encourage children to talk about their fears.
Do not belittle or make fun of them. There are excellent children’s books about fears that you can read to them.
Children can become afraid of anything. Their fears seem to spring up out of nowhere and can come and go quickly or last for months. For most children, loving support and understanding will enable them to overcome their fears. If your child’s fears seem overwhelming and are showing no sign of lessening, be sure to seek professional help.