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Ways to Help Children Cope with Their Fears

There are many things you can do to help children with their fears. You also can share ideas with parents or caregivers when you talk with them. These are ways you can help children at home, at school, or in the community.

1. Accept and respect children's fears. Fears are real to children; don't laugh or pretend their fears are not real. Although children will grow out of some of their fears, you can help children learn ways to deal with their fears. These skills will help them for the rest of their life.

2. Spend extra time with children when they are afraid. Help children adjust to childcare when they are new in your program. Some children need special attention during storms. Bedtime is another time when some children need special attention, because other fears look larger when they are combined with fears of the dark. Bedtime routines like a song or a story can be comforting.

3. Establish a predictable routine. Knowing patterns in daily life makes children feel secure in their world. It helps them to know what to expect. At childcare, you can follow the same pattern of activities each day - snack, large group time, outdoor play. There can be a routine at home too. In some families, one day each week the children help get groceries. Maybe the children have a bath after dinner. In some families, there is a bedtime story each night. In other homes, parents always sing a song before the children go to sleep.

4. Talk about feeling scared. It is important for children to learn to talk about all of their feelings, including fear. When children look like they are scared, you can say to them, "You are biting your fingernails. Does that mean you feel scared?" This helps children to name what they feel. You will begin to understand how each child shows fears. Some children will suck their thumbs. Some will fidget. Some will whine and complain more. When you talk with them about being scared, it helps them to learn to talk about their feelings.

5. Use play to talk about fears. Dolls, stories, and art can help children talk about being afraid. Play-acting gives children a sense of control over their fears. Ask them to talk about pictures they made. Playing is especially useful to prepare for big changes. For example, before moving to a new house, play out what will happen on moving day. Build two houses out of blocks and use a toy truck to move the furniture. This will help the children understand what it means to move. Read books about fears with the children.

6. Help the children learn about what scares them. Knowing how things work and what to expect can make things less scary. Read books about why fire trucks have sirens, or learn about thunder and lightning. Let children know that it is okay to be a little afraid of some things. It can be good to be a little scared of dogs you don't know or strangers who ask you to get in their car.

7. Talk about your fears, too. Children need to know that adults have different kinds of feelings, too. They need to see how adults deal with feelings like fear. Talk about your feelings so children learn to express their feelings with words, but be careful not to tell children things that will scare them. Don't add to their worries. Be careful not to protect them too much, but don't tell them too much. Think about how much children needs to know about stressful events that might scare them. Talk about how fear makes you feel in your body. Tell them what you do to feel better when you are afraid. That can teach children that everyone can learn to live with and manage fears.

8. Recognize courage. Tell children when you notice them trying something that scares them. Tell them you are proud when they act brave. For example you could say, "When we walked by the dog, you didn't ask to be picked up. You just held my hand tightly. Good for you! You are becoming brave!" This encourages them.

9. Talk about what might help them cope with their fear. Ask the children what would help them feel less afraid. Asking children what will help them deal with their fears helps them learn problem-solving skills. Talk about how you coped with fears when you were a child. Teach children how to take slow, deep breaths to relax and feel better. If pictures of bombs and shooting scare children, tell them they can turn off the TV or walk away. Limit war play and violence in the childcare setting. If children are scared of the dark, put their cots or mats closer to the windows so they have more light.

Source: Provider-Parent Partnerships
Purdue University, School of Consumer and Family Sciences
Department of Child Development and Family Studies
Authors: Giselle Goetz with Judith A. Myers-Walls, PhD, CFLE

Reviewed by athealth on February 8, 2014.