There are many things that can scare a child:
- a loud noise,
- an angry parent,
- a barking dog,
- a hospitalization,
- witnessing violence.
Sometimes we know children are afraid because they tell us so, but at other times, it comes out in their behavior. They act out, they withdraw, or they’re aggressive. When a child is afraid, she feels alone. She feels as if she can’t figure things out, no one can help her, and she won’t survive.
Children experiencing fears need two things. They need reassurance and empathy, and they also need the encouragement to keep moving forward. That sounded like three things, but it was two–empathy and a push. 🙂
Last spring, I was taking a walk with my son and his eight year-old friend, Noah. We were on a beautiful trail overlooking the ocean. Looking down, you could see the crashing waves and an occasional sea lion. A lizard ran by our feet. But Noah was scared. He stopped walking and said, “I want to turn back. I’m too afraid.”
What do you say to a child who is in the throes of fear? If you tell him not to be afraid, or that there is nothing to be afraid of, you discount his experience.
Clearly there was something to be afraid of at some point in Noah’s life. Instead of telling him not to be afraid, I listened to his fears and assured him that he was safe.
I also said, “I want you to go a little farther. We’ll be with you. I’m going to keep us safe. You can hold my hand if you want.”
Grounded and reassured by my empathy, he took my hand without hesitation and walked a little further, above the crashing waves. After about five minutes he stopped again and said he couldn’t walk anymore, he was too scared. Again we waited with him, and I told him we would take it slow, but that I wanted him to keep going a little more. And he did.
Like many kids experiencing fears, Noah was at times resistant. But he was also able to be honest and vulnerable, and he pushed himself to keep going.
He didn’t do what psychologist Larry Cohen would call “white-knuckling it.” As Cohen explains in The Opposite of Worry, “There is a small group of children who force themselves to swim or dive but are too tense to enjoy it. I call this ‘white-knuckling’ because of the way a person’s knuckles turn white from gripping tightly. The grip is a way to endure the unendurable.”
White-knuckling comes from internalizing judgment and holding on to the fear. That wasn’t how Noah moved forward; we nudged him to go on by facing his fear without judgment.
I was so proud of Noah that day. He told us he was afraid, but he took my hand and kept going. He experienced what Cohen calls “the face-and-feel-zone”—both being soothed and gently pushed out of avoidance. Cohen says, “To overcome fear, we need to spend time at the edge. The edge is the place where we face our fears, where we feel afraid but do it anyway—or at least take a small step closer.”
Other things that you can say when children are afraid are:
“I’m right here, I won’t go away.”
“I am here to keep you safe.”
“This isn’t going to last forever, I’ll make sure of that.”
“I know it’s hard, but it won’t always be hard.”
“I’m watching over you every minute.”
Stay close to your frightened child. Make eye contact and hold your arms out for her, letting her know that you are there and that she is safe now.
The key to allowing children to face their fears in this open and honest way is to keep anchoring them throughout the process. They need to know that whatever scared them won’t happen again. They need to know that they will survive.