Sometimes our kids’ fears seem simple. Monster under the bed? Piece of cake. But that’s not always the case. Fear can come from so many angles, and with very real concerns in our world today—global pandemic, systemic injustice, climate crisis, political unrest—how does a parent prepare their kids to cope with the uncertainties ahead?
A survey conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic by Save the Children tells us 67% of parents were somewhat or extremely worried about their child’s emotional and mental wellbeing. When kids were asked how they feel, nearly half reported being worried (49%). One in three reported being scared (34%), and one in four reported being anxious (27%), confused (24%), stressed (23%) or unhappy (22%).
Although they’re related, there’s a difference between anxiety and fear. Fear is an emotional response to a known or definite threat. Anxiety anticipates a possible threat. For a kid that could mean, they’re afraid of the loud noise they hear coming from the basement, but they’re anxious that when they open the basement door, they may hear a loud noise.
They’re so connected that fear causes anxiety and anxiety can cause fear. We’ll experience the same symptoms from both: shortness of breath, increased heart rate and tensed muscles. But anxiety also results in feeling nervous or restless, having trouble concentrating, and constantly worrying, to name a few more indicators.
Scientists who study the brain tell us emotions arise from activity in three distinct regions: the amygdala, the insular cortex, and the periaqueductal gray, a structure in the midbrain. Think of the amygdala as the emotions control center. It specializes in detecting and responding to threats. That’s what activates the feeling of fear, and that’s a good thing. Fear guides our fight or flight response that helps to keep us safe. It also heightens our senses and the awareness that puts us on alert so we feel prepared.
Kids experience some very real fears and develop specific ones depending on their age:
- Babies and toddlers are afraid of strangers, loud noises, and people in costumes .
- Preschoolers fear dogs and other animals, the dark, and change.
- Early elementary school-aged kids may be afraid of making their teacher angry, getting sick or hurt, and bad dreams.
- Kids, aged 7 and up fear sudden tragedies, parents getting sick or dying, and the unknown.
Fear becomes complicated for teens. Adolescence begins when the protein, kisspeptin is released into the brain. That affects the amygdala and makes feelings more intense. While teens endure several fears including failure, rejection, criticism, gossip, embarrassment, and disappointment, they often suffer in silence. They don’t like to admit to being afraid. They’re ashamed of it and think exhibiting fear shows weakness. This allows fear to feed upon itself and that increases anxiety.
Kids can record their living history by keeping a journal, making it as elaborate or as simple as they’d like.
Develop Habits to overcome fear
It’s our natural instinct as parents to come to the rescue and banish our kids’ fear, but teaching them to manage it themselves builds the confidence they need to take control over the scary stuff, and cope with fear throughout their life.
- Self-regulation is the ability to process and manage emotions and behaviors in a healthy way.
- Stress Management is figuring out how to become calm and balanced when situations get stressful.
Attachment, the third foundational building block, gives your kids the sense of security they need to consider their options.
There are plenty of ways you can support your kid in the meantime as they develop these habits and learn to handle their fears
Here’s how you can help
Be available: Sometimes your very presence is all a kid needs to calm their fear. Our kids want to know we are listening to them and that we “believe” them. Use the time together to develop an emotional response plan. It’s a way for your kid to think about how they feel. Emotions don’t just happen; they’re responses we can control. By working together to plan strategies for dealing with hard emotions, you’re helping your kid build skills for self-regulation.
- Reflect on why they feel fear.
- Brainstorm different responses for next time.
- Confirm how you will support them if they feel overwhelmed and can’t handle the fear on their own.
Acknowledge their fear: Even if there’s no boogeyman in the closet, your kid’s afraid there is. Or maybe that science test your middle-schooler is facing feels daunting. Accept that they’re scared. Don’t downplay it; instead, ask your kid to suggest a plan to address the fear. You want to help your child “feel the fear and do it anyway.” Maybe they’d like you to open the closet door together to check if anyone is inside. Or perhaps they want you to quiz them on the facts to prepare for the test. In the case of a real threat, like a fire, take action first, but then explain to your kid all that’s being done to protect them. They’ll notice that you’re afraid, too. Admit it. If you don’t, they’ll know you’re lying and that will make them more fearful.
Ask the right questions: Even if a kid knows what they’re afraid of, they may not know how to tell you. Ask questions to get to the root of their fear. If they say they’re afraid of the neighbor’s dog, ask why? If they’re not sure or don’t answer, give them a few options: because it’s big, it’s loud, it jumps? As you continue the conversation, you’ll come to a better understanding of exactly what your kid is scared of and can help them come up with a plan to work through the fear.
Encourage brave behavior: It may be easy to develop confidence in the preschooler who’s afraid to sleep in their room. Don’t push them out of yours. Put their mattress on your floor and over the next few nights, move it a little further away until it’s back in their room. Each morning praise them for being brave.
If fear is stopping the high school kid from auditioning for the school play, help them set small goals like practicing in front of their mirror, then in front of you, and finally at the audition. These minor steps lead to big action and brave behavior. With lots of uncertainty ahead and some very real concerns, we’re all coping with some fear. As we help our kids address theirs, let’s practice some brave behavior of our own