Helping Children Conquer Their Fears

by Patty Wipfler

A child becomes afraid when circumstances beyond her control, or circumstances she doesn't understand, rock her fragile sense of safety.  The process of development, birth, and growth in the first vulnerable years present many moments when a child's sense of safety is challenged.  And although we consider ourselves an "advanced" society, many children still face deeply isolating and even life-threatening situations early in their lives.  Damage is also done by the harshness, threats, and violence commonly aimed at young children in "children's" movies, cartoons, and fairy tales. 

To Release Feelings of Fear, Your Child Will Choose a Pretext 

The situations that install fear made the child feel helpless and powerless. To safely release the fearful feelings, she hangs her fears on a pretext that is ordinary and commonplace.  This way, she can bring up the feelings without any chance of experiencing a real threat to her safety.  As a child grows, her fears attach first to one pretext and then to another if she isn't able to get the help she needs.  Your child is ready to release feelings of fear when she is acting deeply afraid of a harmless situation. 

So, for instance, a toddler who was once treated in the emergency room for a second-degree burn may become terrified of having his mother brush his teeth. Or a child who spent a week in an isolette as an infant may collapse, "too weak" to take another step on a short family hike in the woods. 

How Children Release Fear 

We can help children with their fears in the play we do with them, and in how we handle the times when their fears overwhelm them. 

Fear releases in laughter

Play that helps children overcome their fears starts by allowing a child "special time," during which the grownup does whatever the child wants to do (with older children, a limit on spending money is a good idea).  You are the listener.  Notice what your child loves to do, and support her with closeness and approval.  During this time, look for opportunities to take the less powerful role. 
If your child is pretending to go to work, playfully cry and beg her not to go. If your child wants to play chase, try to catch her, but fail most of the time. If your child asks to jump on the beds, playfully ask her to jump "carefully," with enough of a sparkle in your eye that she'll know it's OK to surprise and scare you with how high she can jump. 

Your child's fears will release as she laughs while you play this less powerful role.  The longer you play and elicit laughter in this way (tickling is not helpful), the bolder your child will become. 

Fear releases in crying, trembling and perspiration

When your child's fears have siezed her, she is ready to work through her deeper feelings of fear.  At this time, it's your job to be as warm, accepting, and confident as you can.  Don't try to change a safe situation.  Your child has to feel her fears in order to shed them.  Your confident presence will make all the difference for her.  Move her slowly toward the frightening situation, and hold her close.  When she begins crying, struggling, trembling and perspiring in your arms, you have things "just right."  She will feel terrible:  you are there to assist her while she sheds that terror.  You can tell her, "I'm right here and I won't go away.  Everything's O.K."  or, "I see how hard this is, and I'm watching you every minute.  I'm keeping you safe."  Your child will very likely protest, asking you in powerful language to go away.  But if you go away or comfort her, she can't shed her fears.  You need to be confident that working through the fear, safe in your arms, will help her. 
Stay with a terrified child for as long as you can.  The more tender and confident you are, the faster her fears will melt. Children can generally cry and struggle, tremble and perspire, for up to an hour before they are done with a chunk of fear.  If you can, stay with your child until she realizes that she is safe in your arms, and that all is well.  When she reaches that point, she will relax, perhaps cry deeply with you, and perhaps laugh and loll in your arms for a good long time.  Her behavior will change markedly after such a "session." 

Helping our children release their fears can be difficult work.  It's surprisingly hard to let children laugh long, and to listen to the depth of their fears and griefs.  You'll find that things go better when you find a listener for yourself, so that you, too, have the chance to say what you think and notice what you feel as you work hard to help your child conquer fear.

Patty Wipfler was born, raised and educated in California, graduating from Occidental College in 1968, and is the mother of two sons. The focus of her work since 1974 has been teaching basic listening, parenting, and leadership skills to parents. She directed The School, a non-profit parent co-operative preschool in Palo Alto, and later directed Neighborhood Infant Toddler Center for Palo Alto Community Child Care. She has led over 370 residential weekend workshops for families and for leaders of parents in every part of the U.S. and in 23 other countries.

In 1989, she founded the Parents Leadership Institute (PLI), a non-profit organization that she now directs. She has written 12 booklets, produced 2 videotapes and several audiotapes, and has written numerous articles for PLI on the principles and benefits of listening parent-to-parent and parent-to-child, and on leading Parent Resource Groups.