Helping Children Face Their Fears
Everyone has fears; it's part of being human. But National Face Your Fears Day (celebrated the second Tuesday in October) gives everyone a chance to face the things that they are afraid of and to conquer their fears…or at least contemplate them. But if you're a parent, the day presents a unique opportunity to help your children with their fears.
Being afraid of things that can hurt you or situations that can cause harm is a good thing. But often children have fears that reach beyond those logical circumstances and take on a life of their own.
How Fear and Self-Confidence are Related
Fears, both rational and irrational, can work against a child's self-confidence, creating a cycle of worry that leads them to believe they are incapable of facing their fears. From our perspective, the best way to help kids face their fears is by focusing on building self-confidence and using language that communicates our confidence in them to do so.
Have realistic and developmentally appropriate expectations when asking children to face their fears.
- Don't ask your child to conquer a fear that you, as a parent, cannot do or did not accomplish until later in life. Try to remember what you were afraid of when you were young and show empathy. Parents often have grand expectations for their kids and, while those expectations usually come from a positive place, it can cause suffering for both the parent and child to expect more than is developmentally appropriate.
- Never make fun of a child's fear, even if it is totally irrational. When helping children face a fear, be sure to pay attention to your child's resilience, strength and adaptability. Help them use their best qualities to face their fear and then bring in their lesser traits as their self-confidence grows.
Be mindful of language used while discussing their fears.
- Understand that we often try to make sense of the world with overly simplified or overly complicated language, so urge your child to ask for clarification if they don't understand what is being said. Also, try to keep discussions of their fears in neutral terms and skip any unnecessarily vivid descriptions.
- Encourage your child to challenge their brain by asking probing questions about their fears and help them to learn that thoughts come and go and to not take them too seriously.
Pay attention to expressed language.
- Parents must be mindful of how they speak to themselves and their children and avoid overly critical, inflexible or frightening language.
- Make sure that the language being expressed reflects family values and areas of importance.
- When speaking to your kids about their fears, it's important to clearly and concisely highlight simple steps they can take to face their fears. Be sure to praise them for any step they make toward that goal. Growing self-confidence is to be commended and built upon!
- Avoid statements that label your kids like, “Jane is afraid of everything" or “Tommy's afraid of the dark," as these types of comments can negatively impact self-concept development, even if the comments may be based on observed facts.
Stop talking and start doing.
- You are your child's role model, so let them see you try things that make you uncomfortable. Showing your child that you can face fears, and talking about that process, will help them realize that they can overcome fears too.
- Teach your child to bravely face the world and help them to manage their fears and understand expectations.
Healthy self-confidence is key to facing fears and it is built through life experience and supported by trust, personal values, developmentally appropriate expectations and intentional use of language. Boys Town Behavioral Health offers a variety of resources to help parents navigate the challenges of building self-confidence in kids.
As for fear, as part of the fight or flight mechanism, it has played a part in human survival over the ages. Appropriate fear can keep children and young adults from doing reckless things.
However, if your child is suffering from fears that begin to interfere with daily life (school attendance, friendships or family relationships), it's time to involve your pediatrician or a trusted behavioral therapist. You should seek counseling immediately for your child if their reaction to their fears is extreme or debilitating.