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A kid's fears and worries
Kids are afraid of many things. Their fears are often very specific. They may be afraid of the dark, of fire alarms, of bugs or dogs, and of any and all strangers, or they may be afraid that you will die. Sometimes a child's fear and anxiety are so intense that she develops a real phobia, perhaps following a frightening experience like being bitten by a dog.
After the age of eight, most children have worries about how they fit in. They worry about being popular, about how they dress or how they look. They worry about succeeding or failing in school subjects or at sports.
All kids have everyday worries, but some kids have more serious fears. They may be afraid that their parents will divorce, or they might worry because of alcohol or drug abuse, or because of emotional or physical abuse in their family. Perhaps their fears originate in situations at school. They may be afraid of a teacher or of another student who bullies them, or they may have encountered a dangerous situation with drugs.
Making your child feel comfortable
Make your home a place where your child feels comfortable talking about her fears and worries, without giving up her privacy or feeling invaded. Home should be the place where your child feels safe to put into words what's bothering her, and she'll need your help to identify her feelings. Your child may also feel embarrassed about having the fear, so it helps if you can find a way to broach the subject that allows her to confide but at the same time to save face. Your role is to guide and support your child, to help her solve problems on her own, when possible, but also to intervene in the situation, when necessary.
To help your child deal with a specific fear or worry, you need to know what's really going on. Don't dismiss or downplay his concerns. This shuts down the lines of communication and discourages your child from sharing his fears with you. When you're familiar with what's going on in your child's life, he is more likely to talk to you. Be ready to listen whenever he decides to talk. He's more likely to open up when you're doing dishes together than to respond when you ask him a direct question at the dinner table. Face-to-face discussions about a fear or worry can seem confrontational and may increase your child's anxiety level. Children can often express what's on their mind better when they are engaged in doing something else.
When your child talks about his worry, it may help to talk about your feelings in a similar situation and how you solved the problem. Your child may be glad to know that you, too, failed a math test but then went to the teacher for extra help and managed to pass the next one. She won't feel so alone, and she'll be glad to hear about a possible solution.
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The fearful child
The fearful child needs compassion and support from her parents. But you also need to help her learn how to take risks at her own pace. If being fearful is a basic part of her personality, it's important to help her learn to calm herself, so she can become less anxious and more confident. The ten-year-old who is afraid of dogs might try putting her hand down for a friendly dog to sniff after one of you has asked the owner if that's OK. She can decide to give dogs without owners nearby a wide berth.
You don't want to coddle a fearful child, but you do need to find appropriate challenges that he can handle. Help him take small, manageable steps in resolving fears or problems that loom large in his mind. Kids often find it calming to face their fears with older, supportive kids. An eight-year-old who's afraid of spiders might look at one with interest if her older cousin is examining the spider's web with her.
An ongoing process
Draw your child gradually into challenging situations rather than force him to sink or swim. Fearful children need to get comfortable with new situations by putting one toe in the water at a time. Sometimes his progress may appear painfully slow to you. But allow him to take his own time; work with him at the level he's at. He needs to feel competent in order to participate in a new activity.
If your child wants to play soccer but is afraid of the ball hitting him, practise with him by kicking the ball toward him gently until he gets used to a light kick before you kick the ball harder. As he gets more skillful at stopping the ball and more comfortable with the feel of the ball when it hits him, his confidence will grow.
Seeking professional help
If his fears prevent him from functioning day to day, you may want to seek professional counselling. Although the fearful child may go into counselling as "the patient," in most cases the whole family needs to become involved to find a solution. Parents need to look at all the layers of the child's environment: the immediate family, the extended family, neighbourhood, community, and school. The child's fears may be based in realities that the family is not aware of. His experiences in life, either at home or outside the home, may reinforce his natural tendency to be fearful.
Addressing the real issues, especially if they are family issues, will help to solve the problems for the child so that he can become more comfortable, secure, and connected to his world. When you help your child solve problems, he learns how to cope and to deal with his worries and fears. You can help him learn the kind of optimism that makes him calmer, more confident, and resilient.
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