The bloodcurdling scream stops you in your tracks; your heart skips a beat as you see the look of horror on your son’s face.
The next sound out of his mouth is barely discernable, but your years of experience have made you an expert in translation. You let your breath out slowly as you realize there is no immediate threat to his safety.
“Spider!” he screams again as he scampers away from his eight-legged adversary.
As baffling as your child’s (noticeably over-the-top) reaction to the spider seems, there is nothing abnormal about his fear. Kids can be afraid of everything from swimming in the ocean (what if there’s a shark?!!) to scary Halloween masks (what if it really is a monster?!) to balloons (who doesn’t jump when a balloon bursts unexpectedly?). While some fears may be easier to understand than others, they are all very real to your child, whether he’s three or 13.
Fear itself is not a bad thing. It’s that sense of dread or apprehension that can warn us, and protect us, from danger, evil or pain. But unreasonable, uncontrollable fear that is out of proportion to the situation can keep us from functioning at all. Helping your child manage, and perhaps eventually overcome, his or her fear takes time, patience and empathy.
Validate the feelings but not the source.
It’s important to respect your child’s feelings and acknowledge the fears are all normal. But Googling “shark sightings” with your child before going on a beach vacation or checking every nook and cranny in your house for signs of the bogeyman could just backfire by making her more apprehensive. Likewise, pampering a child who is visibly upset about something scary can reinforce the notion that there is something to be scared about. (Otherwise, why would mom/dad be paying so much attention to me?) Express understanding about her fear then tell her you are confident she can overcome it.
Master the fear…
Whether your child is afraid of the bogeyman, the neighbor’s dog or a spider, he can overcome it with your help. Ask him for things that might help him get used to seeing spiders. “I notice spiders make you anxious. What do you think would help you get used to seeing spiders?” Maybe he can look at a spider through glass, where it can’t climb close to him. Perhaps learning about spiders in a book will make him interested in rather than fearful of them.
…but give it time.
Understand that if she’s had a bad experience with, say, the neighbor’s dog, it can take some time to overcome it. Start with her suggestions, taking small steps to build her confidence so she gradually works up to confronting the fear. Perhaps seeing a dog through the glass at a pet store is a first step, followed by petting a small dog on a leash. Most importantly, don’t push/force a child to confront something that scares them.
Ban ghost stories.
Halloween is a perfect time for scary stories – if your child is old enough or doesn’t scare easily. A child who thinks he can handle a scary tale may think otherwise when his vivid imagination kicks in after the lights go out at bedtime. Be aware of what your children are reading and watching, and talk about the difference between fact and fiction.
Finally, don’t make fun of your child’s fears. Instead, provide reassurance and understanding. Both will go a long way to helping your child feel safe and secure. Chances are, those bloodcurdling screams will subside by the time he’s, say, 20.
Please note: If your child’s fears seem to be interfering with his/her enjoyment or ability to fully participate in things he/she normally likes to do, consult a professional. A professional can help your child develop coping mechanisms and learn to manage his/her fears.