How to help children who are scared

We are coming up to the time of Ghosts and Ghouls, ‘Trick or Treat’ and Halloween. Many children will be scared by the sight of costumes associated with these rituals. However being scared is a normal part of childhood development. Children learn to manage their emotions and assess risk and threat. These are some steps to help your child:

  1. Explain that fear is a natural response and affects parents from time to time also. The body reacts with a fight, flight or freeze response with an increase in the heart rate, breathing or shaking. This phase is usually short lived and will pass.
  2. Many things scare children. As a child I was scared by the Daleks on Dr Who and would watch the TV from behind the couch. Clowns, baddies, monsters, barking dogs and other animals such as spiders also trigger a fear response. This is based on an evolutionary response that is designed for our survival and protection.
  3. When your child experiences scary feelings and sensations they should be reassured and enabled to feel safe. I encourage children to notice where these scary feelings are locate in their body. If these feelings persist long after the exposure to the fearful stimulus individual therapy can be helpful.
  4. These feelings may cause nightmares and there are several steps to resolve this. A nightlight might help and avoiding unnecessary exposure to the stimulus e.g. clown, Halloween costume of TV programme is also beneficial.
  5. Sometimes fears can spread to other aspect’s of your child’s life. They may be reluctant to go to school, have non-specific tummy pain or even refuse to eat. The child can be encouraged to be confident and face their fears. However you may need professional help to initiate this process.
  6. Children fear what is new and what they don’t understand. Once back in control of these emotions self confidence can emerge. When the clown bursts their balloon your child may react with a startled response. You can say, “ You seemed to be frightened when that balloon burst. Let’s investigate together to see what happened”. This strategy can be applied to other noises such as those from a vacuum cleaner hair dryer or other electrical device. You can help your child to control the volume and take agency over their fears and sensory sensitivities.
  7. Finally the less anxious as a parent you are the less anxious your child will be in confronting these fears.

Dr Art O’Malley MB BAO BCh BAO MRCPsych FRCPsych EMDR Europe Accredited Consultant for Children Adolescents and Adults

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