A child becomes afraid when circumstances beyond her control, or circumstances she doesn't understand, rock her fragile sense of safety. The process of development, birth and early growth presents many moments when a child's sense of safety is challenged.
And although we consider ourselves an advanced society, many children still face deeply isolating and even life-threatening situations early in their lives. Damage is also done by the harshness, threats, and violence commonly found in movies, cartoons, and fairy tales.
To release feelings of fear, your child will choose a pretext
The situations that installed fear made the child feel helpless and powerless. To safely release the fearful feelings, she hangs her fears on a pretext that is ordinary and commonplace. This way, she can bring up the feelings at a time when there is no real threat.
As a child grows, her fears attach first to one pretext and then to another if she isn't able to get the help she needs. Your child is ready to release feelings of fear when she is acting deeply afraid of a harmless situation.
So, for instance, a toddler who was once treated in the emergency room for a second-degree burn may become terrified of having his mother brush his teeth. Or a child who spent a week in an isolette as an infant may collapse, “too weak” to take another step on a short family hike in the woods.
Fear releases in laughter
Play that helps children overcome their fears starts by giving a child Special Time, during which the grownup does whatever the child wants to do (See our booklet, Special Time, one of the Listening to Children booklets.) You are the listener. Notice what your child loves to do, and support her with closeness and approval. During this time, look for opportunities to take the less powerful role.
If your child is pretending to go to work, playfully cry and beg her not to go. If your child wants to play chase, try to catch her, but fail most of the time. If your child asks to jump on the beds, playfully ask her to jump “carefully,” with enough of a sparkle in your eye that she'll know it's OK to surprise and scare you with how high she can jump.
Your child's fears will release as she laughs while you play this less powerful role. The longer you play and elicit laughter in this way, the bolder your child will become. But avoid ticking—it is not helpful.
Fear releases in crying, trembling, and perspiration
When your child's fears have seized her, she is ready to work through her deeper feelings of fear. At this time, it's your job to be as warm, accepting, and confident as you can. Don't try to change a safe situation. Your child has to feel her fears in order to shed them. Your confident presence will make all the difference for her.
Move her slowly toward the frightening situation, and hold her close. When she begins crying, struggling, trembling and perspiring in your arms, you have things “just right.” She will feel terrible: you are there to assist her while she sheds that terror. You can tell her, “I'm right here and I won't go away. Everything's OK.” or, “I see how hard this is, and I'm watching you every minute. I'm keeping you safe.”
Your child will very likely protest, telling you in powerful language to go away. But if you go away or comfort her, she can't shed her fears. You need to be confident that working through the fear, safe in your arms, will help her.
Stay with a terrified child for as long as you can. The more tender and confident you are, the faster her fears will melt. Children can generally cry and struggle, tremble and perspire, for up to an hour before they are done with a chunk of fear. If you can, stay with your child until she realizes that she is safe in your arms, and that all is well. When she reaches that point, she will relax, perhaps cry deeply with you, and perhaps laugh and loll in your arms for a good long time. Her behavior will change markedly after deep emotional release.
Helping our children release their fears can be difficult work. It's surprisingly hard to let children laugh long, and to listen to the depth of their fears and griefs. You'll find that things go better when you find a listener for yourself, so that you, too, have the chance to say what you think and notice what you feel as you work hard to help your child conquer fear.
Here’s one mother's story about how it can work:
“I have twins who are twenty-two months old. My son used to love baths, but one night, when he and his sister were taking one, he pulled the shower lever and got a dosing of water on their heads. After that he refused to take a bath. I decided he needed some Staylistening, a Hand in Hand parenting tool, where I stick around and listen to what's going on in his mind without adding any of my ideas or suggestions.
I would bring them into the bathroom, get his sister into the bath and tell him that he was getting in also. He cried and cried. The first two times I listened he said, “Shower,” and looked up quite a bit. I reassured him that the shower was all done, but I also just let him cry and talk about it.
Last night was our third cry. He started off crying, saying, “No,” and clinging to me. I had filled the bath with a little water. After about five minutes he saw the bath animals on the side of the tub. He asked me to put the duck in, then the crab, then the turtle. He then looked in the tub where I had propped them up and said, “Swimming!” with a big smile on his face.
I agreed they were swimming and then he looked up at me and said, “In.” That was that! Thank, you, thank, you, thank you. I love having tools I can use for any situation.”
—a mother in Berkeley, California
- It can be hard to stay through present through a bout of intense crying. There's more about that in this post How to Stay Through Staylistening
- If you are trying to help your child through anxiety, this series of four podcasts will help.