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Help Children Face Their Fears

Kids grapple with countless fears and anxieties as they grow up: starting a new school, diving off the high board, taking a big test, encountering a bully or a growling dog. It's natural for us to want to shelter them from these scary situations, but that's not possible - which turns out to be a good thing. Children need to learn how to handle new challenges and worries. What's more, their anxieties about disappointing others and embarrassing themselves can actually motivate them to excel: to study harder, practice longer, connect better with others, and otherwise improve themselves.

Douglas S. Barasch, a father of two, lives in New York City.

Moving From the World of Fantasy to Reality

Up until this stage, many kids fret about things like the dark or imaginary monsters, which — though harmless — they can't understand. But as experience helps them make sense of the world, they begin, around age 5, to shift from worries based on fantasy to those rooted in reality: animals, insects, big machines, and thunderstorms, says Olivia Velting, Ph.D., at the NYU Child Study Center's anxiety and mood disorders service. Now they comprehend that the source of their anxiety — that growling dog or booming thunderstorm, for example — won't go away just because they close their eyes.

Even if the fear seems silly, never mock or punish a child for being afraid or tell her to just get over it. Nor should you always rush in to soothe her, tempting as it may be. You'll help your youngster more in the long run by teaching her how to comfort herself, says Velting. If a kid is extremely agitated (for instance, unable to catch her breath or stop crying), encourage her to breathe deeply or even sing a simple song, like the ABC's. By distracting herself from the source of her fear and quieting her physical symptoms, she'll be able to get her emotions on a more even keel. Empathize with her feelings — "It seems like that frightened you" — without judging her, says Carolyn Saarni, Ph.D., professor of counseling at Sonoma State University.

Then, step by step, help her brainstorm solutions — "Let's think of a plan together. What would be helpful to you?" For example, talk about how she can avoid the dog, or, after explaining what makes a thunderstorm go boom, suggest ways to avoid the noise, such as putting on headphones and listening to peaceful music during the storm. "It's also essential to act confidently and tell your child that she can handle it," Velting adds. "This helps her feel more in control of the scary situation."

At these ages, children can also work through fears by drawing, pretend play, or silly humor. A 7-year-old might make up a rhyme about not being afraid of thunder; a 5-year-old who's afraid of a dog could pretend to be one. "By playing a game with the fear, a child can feel more powerful," explains Lenore Terr, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine.

Imagining themselves as stronger or bigger than they really are will help some children — and that's fine. This is not the time for a reality check, says Donna B. Marold, Ph.D., a psychologist and research associate at the University of Denver. For instance, when Eileen Mullen's 5-year-old son, Patrick, of Ridgewood, New Jersey, recently told her, "If a bad guy comes into the house, I'm going to go after him and kick him out," she didn't bother correcting him. Distraction can also work. For example, if you know a thunderstorm is on the horizon, pop in your child's favorite videotape or open a board game — and divert his attention with a treat, such as ice cream.

Dealing With Life's Tougher Dilemmas

Children gradually become less fearful of animals and thunderstorms — those tangible things they've encountered and grown more familiar with. Now new fears appear. Typically, these relate to death and illness, matters kids now understand the significance of, yet don't have any control over. In other words, their imaginations remain strong while they become more aware of their real vulnerability to physical harm.

Fortunately, they also develop new tools to cope — in particular, a more sophisticated ability to express themselves. "The more verbal skills a kid possesses, the fewer fears he has," says Marold. Simply putting a worry into words makes it more manageable.

Open a discussion by asking, "When did you start feeling this fear?" Then, suggests Saarni, explore with the child, from her perspective, some ways to deal with it. At the top of this list should be learning about the scary situation from a book or an expert. So for a child who fears vaccinations, research why injections are given (ask your pediatrician to explain; there are also kid-friendly books on this topic). Knowledge will make your youngster feel more in control.

Performing Around Peers

Children's social lives now become the most prominent source of fears. They worry about being left out and teased, notes Marold. Kids fret increasingly about performance challenges in their social and academic worlds and about how peers will judge their abilities — whether in taking a turn at bat or offering an answer in class. Give your child tools to deal with performance fear, such as relaxing her muscles by exercising and visualizing peaceful images (a tranquil meadow, a lake). Suggest encouraging words she can say to herself during the performance to calm her fear. Even asking, "What's the worst that can happen?" can be a stress reliever. Nine-year-old Mary Gibbons of Chicago got herself so worked up before her first piano recital that she froze. Her mom, Ellen, gently took her aside and said: "All the other parents want you to feel relaxed. We'll applaud you. What's the worst that can happen? Missing some notes is no big deal. No one is going to even notice — or laugh." (This was Mary's biggest fear.) This made Mary feel safe enough to perform. Role-play smart ways to deal with fearful situations ahead of time.

Despite kids' growing independence, they still need family as an anchor, says Marold. "If your child feels secure with you, he'll be better able to cope with his fears."