As adults, we’re generally in touch with the things that make us afraid. Perhaps it’s the news. Or spiders. Or something more tactical like running late to the airport. But for kids, articulating worries can be harder to do and often, they lean on their parents for support. But how do you know the right way to comfort them? And what if your strategy is actually making their anxiety worse? We talked to Kristene Geering, content director at the Parent Lab, about the do’s and don’ts of mitigating childhood fears. Here, four mistakes you just might making.
1. You Don’t Know How to Cope With Your Own Fears
Psychologist and author of The Opposite of Worry, Dr. Lawrence Cohen has coined a concept he calls “the second chicken.” Basically, it’s the idea that chickens freeze when they see another chicken freeze in fear, and they can’t relax until that other chicken does, too. In other words, kids pick up on their parents’ fears and anxiety, whether we want them to or not.
“That’s not to say that you aren’t allowed to feel anxious or worried,” Geering explains. “It’s more about recognizing the importance of understanding your own fears and addressing them in a way that your kids can see. You have to be the model for how to deal with your fears.”
That might mean talking through your own tense emotions in front of them. (“Wow, I’ve noticed sometimes the news can make me feel a bit stressed. I’m going to have a cup of tea and go for a walk to calm down.”) Or it might mean leaving your late night hand-wringing for times when the kids just aren’t around. Geering maintains that fear and anxiety are natural parts of life, but it’s our job as parents to teach kids healthy ways to cope.
2. Your Tactics for Conquering Fears Are Too Complex
Between ages two and five, cognitive leaps are happening at warp speed. One of those leaps is their ability to imagine things, which sometimes leads to fear and bad dreams. “For these kids, listening to their fears is the first step,” Geering explains. But after that, the goal is to come up with something concrete and specific to help them conquer their nerves. “Long, detailed, abstract explanations don’t go very far for this age group, as they simply don’t have the cognitive capacity to go there. Instead, you want to offer a solution that helps them feel a sense of power and control.”
For example, say your five-year-old is nervous about monsters. A solution could be to give them a spray bottle labeled “Monster Spray” and a flashlight, then practice how to spritz it into the darkness when they feel afraid. You could also set up a nightlight or read them a story about what they fear, so it feels less scary. No matter what, you want to show that you are there to listen and support them through their worries, Geering says.
3. You’re Listening to Fix, But You Should Be Listening to Reassure
Between the ages of five and ten, many kids develop concrete fears tied to change and real-world anxiety. For example,“bad guys breaking in” after a move, or “germs that could kill me” after, well, living in the world in 2020. “The solution is to listen. Really listen. You can try to find any themes or connections to other things going on, but don’t necessarily call them out or urgently try to troubleshoot. Your job is to notice,” says Geering.
It’s a subtle difference, but an important one since “fixing” the problem is only solution-based. A more productive tactic is reassuring kids that things will be OK, without jumping to specific solves or rationalizations. If they’re afraid of burglars, you should first validate their nerves, then talk about all the things set in place to keep the family safe. ‘We have locks on the doors, the dogs bark really loud if they even hear the mailman. We’re safe here,’” says Geering. “When the ‘what-if’ questions come, calmly answer them and again reassure your child that you have a plan.”
4. You’re Using Words, Not Hugs
This year is ripe with fear and anxiety for all of us. The most important way to help your child cope? Show–don’t just talk—about your support. A hug can go a long way toward making a kid feel comforted when they’re afraid. And, surprise: If a child is mid-meltdown (a common reaction to fear), a hug might be just what they need to center themselves and feel calm again. “We’re all struggling,” says Geering. “We'll all get through it more easily with a bit more kindness in our lives.”