Helping your child face fears can be tricky. I was in my home office when I heard gut-wrenching screams and wild barking. The dad-adrenaline shot straight to my brain, and I was out the front door quicker than you can say “ankle-biting poodle.”
Teaching your child what to do when confronted with a strange dog is one thing. Teaching her what to do when confronted with a charging dog while overcome with terror is quite another.
As my feet left the top porch step and hit the grass of the front yard, my eyes perceived in slow-motion a medium-sized canine barreling across the lawn toward the heels of my sprinting, wailing 8-year-old daughter. In a matter of near-perfect timing and full stride, I jumped in between them, gave the beast my best WWE professional-wrestler-stare, and (quite literally) ROARED at the animal (think Mufasa confronting the hyenas).
The pursuing mutt immediately wielded a sharp U-turn and trotted in the opposite direction, head hung low and tail between legs. (It was hard to tell through all the adrenaline, but I’m pretty sure he whined out an apology from a safe distance).
I admit—I felt pretty darn cool. It’s just a shame the rest of the neighborhood wasn’t outside to see it.
But the most important part of this story is what followed. Once the adrenaline drained from both of us, my daughter and I sat down to talk about what happened and for me to bestow my invaluable fatherly wisdom.
You see, I was taught growing up that if a dog comes at you, don’t run; if you do, you’re acting like prey, and its wild wolf-like instincts are going to kick in (even with the little ankle-biting poodles), and it’s gonna chase you. Stand your ground, look it in the eye, and establish your dominance.
Yeah, try explaining all this to an 8-year-old shaking in her sneakers. And consequently, through our conversation I learned some dad lessons on talking to your child about fear.
Helping Your Child Face Fear
Our world has been in a fearful, anxious tizzy for a while years now. And children are not the least of who are impacted. Kids may not fully understand the news (Heck, most adults don’t fully understand…), but they sense enough to know that things are amiss—so much so that it feels like something scary is right behind them, ready to pounce.
And, as much as we want to, it’s not like we as parents can step in between with a wrestler stare and roar the world into a U-turn. Things are just more… complicated than that.
So how do we help our kids through the fear they’re facing? I’d like to offer some steps you can take:
Help your child understand good fear and bad fear.
Fear does serve a good purpose. It protects us, keeps us from harm, helps us survive. But good fear happens in the context of short-term, isolated threats. It gives us the ability to run away from ankle-biting poodles.
But fear isn’t helpful to us when it’s long-lasting. This is good-fear-turned-bad and can be detrimental to the emotional and physical health and development of children.
Help your child to understand good fear and bad fear by using words like these: You know, some things scare us because we know there is danger, like unfamiliar dogs or snakes or electrical sockets. And this fear is good—it helps keep us safe.
But sometimes we have fear about something and we don’t know why. We think it might be dangerous, but we don’t know for sure. And so it makes us worry for a very long time. For example, sometimes people are afraid of the dark; it’s not because they know what’s in the dark, but because they don’t know what’s there. And what’s happening with the world might be scaring you, not because you know what’s going to happen, but because you don’t know.
Normalize fear for your child—even if it’s irrational.
Let your child know it’s okay to be afraid. Say things like, Everyone is afraid of something. And there are a lot of people—even adults—who are scared of what’s going on right now. It’s okay to be scared. What we want to do is learn more about it and what we need to do to be safe. That way, we don’t have to worry so much. We’re going to work through this together.
Keep in mind that normalizing fear for your child means validating their fear as a real thing, no matter how irrational it is. Yes, you as an adult know that chances are extremely low that your child is in any immediate danger. However, if this is the fear your child has, it’s their fear. This means it’s very real to them no matter how unreasonable it might seem.
Understand as a parent that fear isn’t something to “get over” but to work through.
It’s a process. Fear is an emotional reaction, and you can’t just fix emotions—especially in kids! So you have to have patience, and encourage your child to be patient with themselves.
And keep in mind that there’s a bigger picture with helping our kid work through the process of fear. Yes, we are helping them to work through the situation at hand. But perhaps more importantly, we are helping them to build RESILIENCE and PROBLEM-SOLVING SKILLS that will go with them into their teen and adult years.
Teach emotional self-regulation.
Encourage them to verbalize how they feel. If it helps, have them write down a few sentences that describe more specifically what they are afraid of.
Use a tool like the Wheel of Emotion (below) to give your child the language about how they feel. Sure, they may be “fearful” or “scared,” but this helps kids pinpoint some feelings like “helpless,” “nervous,” or “worried” which helps them process what they’re feeling inside. This opens up a great conversation with your child, which is essential for processing fear.
Finally, encourage your child to engage in healthy behaviors regularly such as active play, engaging with their friends and family, and plenty of rest.
I’ve found it helpful to teach my youngest deep–breathing techniques to use when she feels stressed, which can be found on various mindfulness websites and apps. These are all skills which will help your child regulate their fear and gain a sense of calm.
Coach your child to give their fear a name.
I heard of one family whose child was afraid of the dark, so they directed her to give her fear a name, much like you’d name a pet. The moniker she chose for her fear was “Bob.” Whenever she felt that fear creep into her head at night, the little girl would call it out verbally, and say something like, “Not tonight, Bob—I don’t have time to deal with you because I really want to get some sleep. So, Bob, you need you to scram!”
This might seem sort of trite, but in reality this helps children (especially the younger ones) realize the control they have over their emotions. Giving it a name takes the edge off of fear. It also empowers the child to boss it around rather than allowing it to boss her around.
Regulate your own fears.
Your kids follow your lead. They look to you as an example of healthy emotional regulation and fear management. How well are you taking care of yourself in the midst of the uncertainty? If you’re freaking out and not practicing self-care, your kids will play Monkey-See-Monkey-Do. So be sure you are taking care of yourself and regulating your own emotions well.
Let’s be real: Ankle-nipping dogs have nothing on the news lately. But as parents, we can teach them either to run away and wail, or to process through it and face down the fear with a ROAR. And they’ll take that ROAR with them the rest of their life.