For better or for worse, I have been transparent about my 8-year-old's anxiety disorder. She takes daily medication, and that medication allows her to see past her paralyzing anxieties and realize a brave, joyful life with our family. That medication is a gift from God. (If you want to know more about what it's like to live with a childhood anxiety disorder, go check out this post.)
Most kids don't have what Grace has. Most kids have normal kid fears. Let's talk about those for a moment.
Afraid of the dark, scared of spiders, worried about thunder - these are normal kid things.
And they are very real to the kids who are afraid.
How do you deal with them?
Let me give you a hint, in case you haven't figured it out for yourself: Telling your kids there's nothing to be afraid of, to grow up, and to stop being afraid don't work. Save your breath there.
Let me repeat that. DON'T TELL YOUR KIDS THAT THERE'S NOTHING TO BE AFRAID OF.
To your child, there is absolutely something to be afraid of, and she is afraid. You aren't going to talk her out of it like that.
Here's an expert saying the same thing:
Recognize that the fear is real. As trivial as a fear may seem, it feels real to your child and it's causing him or her to feel anxious and afraid. Never belittle the fear as a way of forcing your child to overcome it. Saying, "Don't be ridiculous! There are no monsters in your closet!" may get your child to go to bed, but it won't make the fear go away.
So what can you do? Try the steps below. I can't guarantee that they'll always work. Fears aren't like that. They might work one time, and they might not work the next time. But if you are consistent and reassuring, your kids will probably eventually outgrow their fear.
Or they might be like me and terrified of spiders for the rest of their natural lives.
But let's go with the first option, shall we?
If your kids are not outgrowing their fears, if their fears interfere with their daily functioning, or if you think there is something more going on, I would encourage you to see a pediatric psychiatrist or psychologist. There is nothing wrong with getting professional help.
10 Ways to Ease Kids' Fears
- Empathize. Did I mention not to tell your child that there's nothing to worry about? Don't do that! Instead, acknowledge her very real feelings, like this: It sounds like you're really scared. That doesn't feel good, does it? What is happening in your body right now? (She may say that her stomach has butterflies or her neck is hurting or whatever. Just affirm that you understand how she is feeling - even if you don't.)
- Give the fears a name. Kids love to be bossy, right? Help them to give the bad feelings a name, and then imagine bossing them right out of their life. Try it like this. Let's call the fears Steve. (This is your child talking.) Steve, you are making me afraid! Steve, you don't know what you're talking about! I don't have to listen to you! Go away and leave me alone!
- Help her to see reality. Ask her what she is worried will happen and listen to what she says. Help her to see that the thing she's worried about really isn't likely to happen. Don't let her spiral into the depths of her worry, just help her see that the worst case scenario probably doesn't even make sense. There is a very fine line here between helping and making the anxiety worse, so tread lightly. There's also a fine line between helping her to find her own inner strength and telling her that there's nothing to worry about. Have I mentioned that you shouldn't do that?
- What would she like to be doing? Help her to visualize what she would be doing if she weren't afraid. Would she be playing or having a snack? Drawing? What things does she like to do? Help her to see something fun, something that doesn't have anything to do with her fears.
- Bring her closer to Jesus. The most common phrase in the Bible is "do not be afraid" (which is, I am aware, exactly what I told you not to say). This beautiful love letter is written to reassure us when we are feeling scared, and those words apply as much to our kids as to us. It may not be useful right off the bat to talk to them about how Jesus will calm their fears, but what has been very helpful for us is to help our daughter understand God's ever present love and protection on an everyday basis, not just when she's feeling afraid. One way to do that is by using a book like Jesus Calling for Kids or Jesus Today for Kids. These books are written as if Jesus were actually speaking right into the heart of the reader. When she knows Jesus as a friend, and she has heard His voice, she will be more likely to lean on Him later.
- Praise her when she works through her fears. Getting over fears is a big deal. Big. Huge. Bigger than the Blue Banana. (That's a line from a movie. Do you know it?) Praise your child any time she squashes her fears or gets through them, even if you have to help. Remind her of the times she's done it before, and how she's always come through okay, and tell her that you have confidence in her.
- Create a safety object. When Grace was small, we made Smoochie Hands out of Shrinky Dinks. I kept one, and Grace kept one, and when I traveled alone, she was able to hold my hand and smooch it whenever she wanted. It helped a lot with her anxiety. Matching necklaces might work or a special stuffed animal. (Grace also has a stuffy named Brave Dragon who helped a lot when she was younger.)
- Create a Calm Down Kit. This is a great idea to help kids learn to manage their anxieties on their own, without the help of a parent. (That entire long blog post is an excellent resource on anxiety in children. It's worth a read even if you don't plan on making a Calm Down Kit.)
- If all else fails, stop talking. Let her know that you're here for her, and then shut up. Listen to her worries, put a reassuring arm around her, and just sit.
- Get a self-help book specifically for kids. I haven't read it, but I've heard that What to Do When You Worry Too Much is excellent.