Research-backed

Fear In Children: What’s Normal, Causes And How To Help Them

Fear In Children: What’s Normal, Causes And How To Help Them

Image: Shutterstock

IN THIS ARTICLE

Children experience complex emotions, and fear is one of them. Often, children can be fearful of things that adults may find non-threatening or irrelevant.

Fear need not always be construed as negative. It can help children be cautious of dangers, thus, keeping them safe and away from dangers. However, if the child has excessive fear or fears about various things in their life, you need to take measures to mitigate this emotion.

In this post, we discuss the causes of fear in children and tell you ways to handle them to make your children feel safe and calm.

Is It Normal For Children To Have Fear?

Fear is both an innate and learned behavior and is a normal part of a child’s growing-up years. According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 75.8% of normal school-going children between the ages of four and 12 years report fears (1). The most common fear in children is the fear of darkness or being left alone in a dark room (2). Children may also have a fear of heights, fire, darkness, loud noises (thunderstorms), animals, or strangers.

Moreover, children’s fears may also vary based on their age. For instance, while very young children might have a fear of monsters, older children might have a fear of violence, nuclear wars, or theft. Fears are common among four- to six-year-olds and become even more prominent in seven- to nine-year-olds. The frequency gradually decreases in ten- to 12-year-olds (1).

Most children outgrow these fears eventually. You need not worry much about your child being fearful unless it is so intense. Sometimes, fear may become severe, extreme, and persistent and may turn into a phobia. Phobias are often irrational and extreme and may interfere with your child’s daily activities (2). Fear in a child becomes concerning when (3)

  • The child is fearful even in the physical absence of a trigger or constantly talks about scary objects.
  • The intensity of fear disrupts the child’s everyday activities. This could manifest in ways such as not going out to play for fear of injuries or not going to the bathroom for fear of spiders.
  • The child shows withdrawn behavior (avoiding social contact), panic attacks, etc.

Causes Of Fear In Children

Some children may be more fearful than others. They may have excessive or irrational fears, significantly affecting their own and their family’s lives. They may also show signs of an anxiety disorder. Potential reasons may include the following (4) :

  1. Genetic predisposition: Genetic susceptibility or predisposition may play a role in the temperament of children. That is why some children tend to be more sensitive and emotional than others.
  1. Anxious parent: Besides being an innate behavior, fear is also a learned behavior. In most cases, children mirror their parents’ behavior and actions, and fear and anxiety are no exception.
  1. Stressful incidents: An injury, major accident, death in the family, or parental separation can have an impact on the children.
  1. Overprotective parents: Over-caring parents can sometimes cause dependency in children. Such children are not only likely to feel more helpless but may also develop generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

How To Deal With Fear In Children?

Fear, if not appropriately addressed, may develop into anxiety or even phobia. Let us discuss a few practical ways to help your child overcome their fears (2) (4) (5).

1. Take the fear seriously

Do not ignore the trigger. As trivial as it may seem to you, fear can cause discomfort and anxiety in your child. Begin by talking to them. Ask them about their fears and what makes them fearful. Things may worsen if the parents make fun of the child or force them to confront their fears.

2. Recognize worries

Instead of asking your child to just overcome their fears, let them know you understand their concerns and are ready to talk. The idea here is to affirm that you understand their fears but do not necessarily have similar fears.

3. Be there

Reassure them and ask them, “How can I help?” “How can I make you feel better?” Or “Are you feeling better now?” Hug them or hold them to make them feel secure and safe.

4. Help them relax

Helping the child relax is a good way to support them to overcome their fears temporarily. Try to lighten the situation – offer them water, loosen their clothing, switch on the light, or open the window – to make them feel relaxed and at ease.

5. Take it step by step

Don’t force the child not to feel or sense fear. Do systematic desensitization, that is, expose your child to the source of their anxiety one small step at a time and help eliminate their fears gradually. Make sure to praise them when they handle the situation well.

6. Don’t be too involved

When your child fears monsters under the bed or inside the cupboard, do not reassure their fears by looking under the bed or opening the cupboard. This may indicate that you also believe that monsters are hiding in the room.

7. Move on

Once you have reassured your child, it is time to move on. Don’t dwell on offering comfort. Instead, talk about how they should manage their fears themselves.

8. Talk it out

Ask your child the possible solutions that can help them feel better or more secure. Often, taking a toy or a comforter to bed can help them feel better. You can also offer suggestions to your child.

9. Allow expression

Children may have limited vocabulary and find it difficult to express their emotions and feelings. Nonetheless, encourage them to talk about their feelings and reach out to you.

10. Be patient

It is important to remember that change takes time. Be patient and consistent in your efforts. Praise the child by saying, “You are brave!” or “You got this!” You need to let them know that they can handle their own fears. You may need more tries for younger children to make the idea stick. So, be patient and persistent.

11. Seek professional help

Sometimes, a child can experience extreme fear, which may interfere with their daily activities. In such cases, parents may seek professional advice. Children can learn ways to handle their fears, and parents can support them by learning helping strategies.

Children may be fearful of situations or objects that adults may not find fearful. When handling the fears of a child, listen to them and reassure them. Making fun of them or forcing them to confront their fears can make the situation worse. Instead, encourage them to talk and take their fears seriously. Help them with strategies to handle fears on their own, and be patient. Do not hesitate to seek professional help if fear interferes with your child’s daily activities.

References:

1. P Muris et al.; Fears, worries, and scary dreams in 4- to 12-year-old children: their content, developmental pattern, and origins; Journal of Clinical Child Psychology (2000).
2. Understanding Childhood Fears and Anxieties; American Academy of Pediatrics
3. Phobias Symptoms & Causes; Boston Children’s Hospital
4. Anxiety and fear in children; BetterHealth, Department of Health & Human Services, State Government of Victoria, Australia
5. How to Help Children Manage Fears; Child Mind Institute

Recommended Articles