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Kids & Fear: Helping Them Cope

Eight-year-old Barb was excited about spending the night at her friend Emma's. But when she got on Emma's bus with her after school, snow began to fall, and Barb got off and ran crying to her own house nearby. "She was afraid the bus wouldn't be able to stay on the road in the snow," her mom explained to Emma's mom.

"A child's fears often parallel her developmental stage," says Robert Schachter, Ph.D., assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, in New York City. Preadolescents  -- who are exposed to many real and media- world dangers  -- have an ever-widening array of fears, whether it's worrying that their car will crash into a ditch or that a burglar will break into their house. In fact, a recent study found that almost 70 percent of them worry, most often about such things as health and dying, their grades, and their social lives, an average of two to three days a week. The problem is, many don't yet have the coping skills to deal with their apprehensions.

The intensity of a child's fear is largely determined by temperament  -- some kids are "scaredy-cats," whereas others rarely bat an eye. Sometimes a seemingly undaunted kid may secretly be shaking in her shoes  -- but a parent can usually pick up on false bravery. For instance, the 10-year-old who enjoys recounting a scary story she read during the day may nevertheless check that the closet doors are firmly shut before going to bed.

Whether your child is forthright about her fears or covers them up, you can help her through them.

[STYLE {LISTEN CAREFULLY} {SECTION}] Though it might be tempting to belittle a child's fears, "kids need to know you take them seriously," says Stephen Garber, Ph.D., coauthor of Monsters Under the Bed and Other Childhood Fears.

[STYLE {NEVER CATER TO A FEAR} {SECTION}] This will only reinforce it. If your child is afraid of dogs and you go out of your way to help her stay away from them, she's unlikely to conquer that anxiety. But don't force her to face a fear either. If you insist that she pet the neighbor's German shepherd, she may become even more frightened.

[STYLE {DISCUSS AND CONQUER} {SECTION}] Using logical reasoning, talk about it with her. Acknowledge that sometimes a fear of the dark makes sense (an alley), but that other times it's unnecessary (her room). Empower her with strategies to help her take control of her apprehension. Let her use a flashlight in bed, for example.

[STYLE {BE PATIENT AND OPTIMISTIC} {SECTION}] "It takes time to overcome a fear," says Garber. Praise progress, but if your efforts to help her fall short, and her anxiety interferes with daily functioning, she may need professional help. In all likelihood, though, that won't be the case. Gradually your preteen should learn that she has little to fear but fear itself.