by Ms Stephanie Cheah, School Counsellor at HIS
Think of the last time when you feared something. Maybe it was something that is going on with your life. Was it a real danger? Or was it something bad you’re thinking that might happen? For most people, it is probably the latter. Everyone has fears from time to time. Especially with the COVID-19 pandemic, some of us expanded our fears by constantly worrying about our health and safety. Whenever we feel fearful, as adults, we have the capacity to do something – we share our fears with others, we read articles to learn the facts, or we process the fears in logical steps.
What about our children? They too, have their own fears. We teach our children to be fearful and cautious of specific dangers, such as fire or crossing the road. In these instances, fear can be useful, because it helps protect the child from harm. However, children can be fearful of situations or objects that adults don’t find threatening.
Fear of the darkness, fear of the monsters under the bed and perhaps more recently with COVID, the fear of parents getting ill and dying.
At times, there are factors in the environment that cause them to be fearful. An over anxious parent – children learn how to behave from watching their parents. An overprotective parent – a dependent child is more likely to feel helpless and this can lead to generalised anxiety. Or stressful events – such as parental separation, an injury or hospital stay.
Unlike us, children have limited capacity to process information and find words to describe accurately how they feel. What they feel internally, they express it outwardly – they cry, whine, have what seem to be temper tantrums, and maybe start to be hyper-vigilant about their hygiene (for those who fear of contracting COVID-19).
Many parents feel helpless in this situation, thinking that only the experts are able to help their children. Truth is, even parents can do something to help children manage their fears. But how? Here are some tips to try:
- Take The Fear Seriously
Whether or not you share the same fear as your child’s fear of monsters under her bed is irrelevant as to understanding that the fear your child is experiencing is real. The paradox about feelings is that it grows when we do not acknowledge our emotional experience. Ignoring and pushing away our children’s fear will only make it worse for them. What your child is really asking you when she is telling you about her fears is – ”Do you see what I’m going through? Do you know what being scared feels like?”
So instead of “There’s nothing to be scared of”,which communicates the lack of empathy and understanding, try, “I see how this is really scary for you. I am here. I am with you.” The latter communicates understanding, safety and trust.
- Transform Fears through Play
Fear often leaves children feeling small and uncertain. We can talk with children about their fear using our adult-language or we can talk in children’s language which is through play. Play is a powerful tool to help children manage their fears by rebuilding control, confidence and trust.
In any fear situation your child is experiencing, instead of talking about it in length, try asking your child to draw, paint, build, dramatise their fear. After that, let your child decide on the ways they think is best to distinguish their fear. It looks something like this:
Child: I’m scared of zombies.
Parent: I hear you talking about it a lot. I can see it must be really scary for you. Let’s draw/paint what this zombie looks like.
Parent lets the child lead the description (colour, size, etc) drawing/painting/ of the zombie.
Parent: Wow that Zombie does look quite scary. I wonder what we can do with it to make it go away.
Child: How about squashing it? Tearing it into pieces?
Parent: Sounds like a good idea, let’s do it.
Drawing out the fears for example, and then talking about ways to distinguish the fear (stomping on it, crushing into a ball, tearing it up in pieces) could help children ways of regaining control of what they thought they do not have control over. Dramatisation, role-playing the fear is another way that could help children think of creative ways to manage what they have no control over.
- The Truth Be Told
What’s behind the fear? Fear is often based on an image or thought that we imagine in our head, to fill in the gaps of information that we are uncertain and have no answers to.
Instead of living in this imagination that can worsen our fear, try filling the gaps of information with facts and seeing the reality of the situation. If your child thinks shadows are monsters at night, help your child see what the shadows really are in reality. If your child thinks COVID-19 is going to get to everyone in the family, help your child understand what COVID-19 is and what people can do to protect themselves from contracting it.
We are often assured when the gap in knowledge is filled with facts rather than wild imaginings. Likewise, your child would appreciate this especially if you do it in an environment that fosters a sense of emotional safety.
What If Fear Becomes Too Much?
With support from a compassionate adult, most children will be able to cope with their fears. These fears eventually go away as they grow older. Some children however, may experience extreme fears, which cause physical symptoms (e.g. frequent stomach ache, frequent headache, panic attacks etc.) and/or impair them from their day-to-day functioning (e.g. unable to go to school, constantly needing someone to be with them etc.).
When this happens, it could be a sign of anxiety and may need intervention from a mental health professional. Early intervention can go a long way in helping your child feel more adjusted and confident with managing their fears.