It’s not uncommon for kids to develop irrational fears at some point during their childhood. Thunderstorms, strangers, bees, and the dark are just a few examples of things that might trigger fear in children. Learning to manage those fears and recognize whether or not they’re rational can help prevent a typical childhood phase from turning into a more persistent phobia.
Where do childhood fears come from?
According to Kavita Tahilani, PhD, and John D. Herrington, PhD, psychologists at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, “fears often stem from uncomfortable or painful personal experiences, second-hand experiences your child witnessed, or an overactive imagination that focuses on ‘worst-case scenario’ thinking.”
Kids have active imaginations and are still learning lots about their environment and what is and isn’t safe, so things that are unfamiliar or that they don’t understand may cause them to stress or worry. A child’s genetic background and the mental health history of their family also play a role in the development of a child’s temperament and how fearful they may be in general.
Fears can be rational when they’re in response to an immediate threat to someone’s safety. For example, it would be rational for a child to feel afraid because a loose dog is running at them, or because another child is bullying them. Irrational fears more often originate from a bad experience or a lack of understanding, and can potentially develop into a phobia, which occurs when a fear becomes so intense that it disrupts someone’s normal life.
Short-term strategies for managing childhood fears
How you respond to your child’s fears in the moment will influence how they cope with them going forward. Preparing them ahead of time with some coping strategies and giving them some space to express their concerns and anxieties will help them manage irrational fears and prevent these misgivings from becoming more disruptive to their lives. Here are some ways to manage childhood fears as they arise:
- Co-regulate and establish safety. First, it’s important to make sure your child knows they are safe. You can try taking deep breaths while holding them, speaking in a soft voice, validating their feelings, and giving them lots of reassuring affection.
- Create space for sharing worries and fears. In a calm moment, let them know that you’ve noticed they seem worried about something. Invite them to share what they’re feeling. Ask for their input about what would help them feel less scared.
- Make a plan together. Come up with a simple strategy to use next time your child’s fear is triggered. If they’re afraid of loud noises, you can bring a pair of headphones they can use if needed during an outing. If they’re worried about riding the school bus alone, identify a friend they can sit with, or choose a book they can look at to help them feel less nervous.
- Learn distraction techniques. Your plan might involve some ways your child can distract themselves during scary moments. Deep breathing is a commonly used distraction technique. Try telling your child, “When you start to feel scared, take a big breath in and imagine a cake with candles. Then blow out until you imagine all of the candles going out. Keep doing this until you feel better.” Other distraction techniques include listening to music or singing, playing with fidget toys, and checking in with each of their five senses.
Long-term strategies for managing childhood fears
Managing irrational fears in the long-term can help your child build up their resilience and bravery when faced with scary situations. The following are some strategies you can use to reduce your child’s sensitivity to fear triggers over time:
- Fill in information gaps. Lots of irrational fears come out of kids’ lack of understanding of things they might have misconceptions about or find unfamiliar. Gently correct any misunderstandings your kid may have about what scares them. Research the topic together and learn all about it. If they’re afraid of cats, look up what would actually happen if they got scratched by a cat, what the doctor would do for them, how often that actually happens, etc. Taking away the mystery can often help dispel irrational fear.
- Don’t accommodate their fear. It makes sense if your child has a meltdown every time you pass a certain scary house, that you might start to take a different route on your walks. However, avoiding what scares your child will only make it worse when you actually do have to encounter it. Likewise, don’t feed into their fear by encouraging their reaction. For example, if your child is afraid of daycare drop-off, avoid saying things like, “I know you’re so sad I’m leaving, I’m sorry!” Instead, try something validating and positive like, “I understand why you’re upset—I don’t want to go either! Lucky for you, you’re going to have a fun day at school! What do you think you’re going to do today?”
- Try gradual exposure. Gradually expose your child more and more frequently to their fear. You can start by talking more about whatever it is that scares them, then work up to looking at related pictures or videos online, and finally to real-life exposures. Each time they successfully practice exposure to their fear, give them tons of encouragement and positive reinforcement.
If your child’s fear seems very intense, and these strategies don’t work for them, it can be helpful to work with a therapist or professional counselor. Most experts recommend seeking professional help for a persistent childhood fear if it arises at least once a day, lasts longer than a few hours, or makes your child lose control of their behavior.