When our children become paralyzed with fear, it’s hard to know how to help them!
A father I know remembers seeing his son in this state during a family vacation at Lake George at the base of the Adirondack Mountains. His son, eight years old at the time, wanted to jump into the water from a large overhanging rock. Son and father climbed up together, and the father (though nervous) jumped in.
portrait of a crying child
His son got stuck at the top, trembling but frozen in place. When the father asked him if he wanted to jump, the boy said, “No,” but he also didn’t want to climb down. The father realized that his son was both too afraid to jump and too afraid to turn back.
When children are afraid, they can be inflexible, stubborn, aggressive, or timid. You might remember being in a similar state, yourself—paralyzed, tongue-tied, short of breath, and suddenly unable to think clearly. But when we see our children in this same state, we often panic or get frustrated instead of giving them the time and patience they need. Or we see their discomfort and let them back away from the thing that scares them. But when they’d rather stay home than go to the dance class (and you know they love to dance), or stay at the sidelines at the swimming pool, they miss out on some important experiences in life. And it doesn’t help their fears subside.
So how can we help our children with small fears or big waves of anxiety? Here are a few suggestions to get started:
Provide Patience, Understanding, and a Nudge
One of the most important things we can offer our children when their fears flare is understanding and patience, but with a little push. While we don’t want to respond to their fears or upsets with frustration or impatience, we also don’t want them sitting on the sidelines. With a loving nudge, children can attempt the things that scare them without becoming overwhelmed.
One mother of a six-year-old girl told me that her daughter hated school assemblies, which were held in the auditorium, first thing in the morning, on the last Friday of the month. The daughter felt scared being dropped off in the crowded and noisy auditorium.
As they walked toward the auditorium on assembly days, the girl would cry and resist going in. Her mother would kneel next to her and say, “I’m right here. Everything will be OK.” Her daughter would cry and tremble.
When her daughter’s crying let up, the mother would say, “It’s time to go in,” and her daughter would start to cry again. And again, the mother would stop and listen. Each time the tears began to subside, the mother would gently suggest they go in. Often just the suggestion would bring tears again.
Lawrence Cohen, author of The Opposite of Worry, calls this the “face and feel zone.” Helping a child through this scary place is a careful dance of moving forward, letting your child feel the fear, and supporting them through it. There’s an art to taking that next step at just the right time, without pushing too hard or too fast, while you listen warmly and confidently to their complaints.
For some children (and parents), this slow approach takes time and patience, as it did for my friend and her daughter. Month after month, the daughter would cry as they approached the auditorium. Some mornings, the daughter was still crying as the mother left for work. The mother’s patience wore thin; she started to think it would never end. But she kept making the time to comfort and reassure her daughter on those days.
Finally, her long effort paid off. One assembly day in the spring, as the two of them were driving to school, the daughter said, “I know the assembly is today, Mommy, and I don’t mind if you go.” The daughter gave her mother a big hug and waved goodbye without tears.
Transform Fears Through Play
Some children need to talk about a scary thing over and again, and this can be a good way to work through it. But other children prefer not to mention their trauma again, or perhaps were too young to remember the details.
When your child can’t or won’t retell a scary event, replaying it can be a helpful option. Play is one of the most powerful ways to help children with their fears. Fears often leave children feeling small and uncertain, and playful games help rebuild confidence and trust.
When my son was afraid of our new, playful cat, I found a large mouse puppet toy, and I played a game where the mouse was afraid of the cat. The mouse would tiptoe through the room where the cat was sleeping and say to my son in a funny voice, “Do not make a sound. I don’t want to wake the cat!” My son, with a big smile, would of course make a loud sound. The mouse puppet would fly off my hand and hit the ceiling screaming, and my son would fall on the floor laughing. After we played this game over and over again, my son became much more comfortable with the cat.
Role reversal is another great way to address light fears, especially with younger children. You pretend to be the scared one, and let your child be the confident one in charge. One fun way to do this is to boast loudly that nothing can scare you. Then, when your little one pushes you slightly, or jumps out at you from behind the closet door, you shriek with fear or hide behind the nearest stuffy.
Roughhousing is also another wonderful way to help children release tension and fears. When a child can be the one who gets to knock you over in a pillow fight or pushes you off of the bed while you’re wrestling, she can find her own power, and her confidence can soar.
Work on Your Own Worries
Children’s fears can be hard on parents. Whether they’re complaining of anxiety, stopped in their tracks, or acting out in aggression, we worry about the right thing to do and say.
Often, fearful or anxious children have parents who worry a lot. I know: I’m one of them! But consider what our worry tells our kids: that the world is not a safe place, or that we don’t have confidence and trust in them. Children can absorb these messages and feel less confident in themselves. For those of us who tend to worry, it can help to find a good listener talk to about our own fears.
Your Fear Toolkit: Laughing, Crying, and Facing Fears
Whatever your child fears, patience and understanding can help him feel more self-assured and less ashamed, while a gentle push and active play can help him get out of that stuck, paralyzed place. And we as parents need to work on our own fears and find ways to soothe ourselves. Parents and children alike can benefit from Lawrence Cohen’s advice: “Do things every day that are scary, fun, and safe!”