Children become fearful at different ages, with different intensities and about different things. Geraldine Tan, Principal Psychologist at The Therapy Room, reveals the most common fears of kids and what you can do to help your child through their insecurities.
Being in the field for more than 10 years, there are fears that have been highlighted from young children. Fears are normal and help kids to stay alert to their surroundings, and we should not brush them away or belittle them. Often, their fears mean something and we should pay attention to what they are attempting to tell us.
Fear 1: Monsters
What the child’s thinking: “Monsters are scary.”
How to manage: When many of them were asked if they were afraid of Pokemon (pocket monsters) or the movie ‘Monsters Inc.’ and ‘Monsters University’, they cooed over these “monsters” and did not become afraid at all. It was then clarified that it was “monster face” that scared them (as per the next point). So when your child says that they are afraid of monsters, do ask them what exactly scares them. It could be a specific image in their head.
Fear 2: Masks / Distorted Images
What the child’s thinking: A normal image that has become totally grotesque.
How to manage: A distorted image in the child’s eyes may be extremely frightening to them. Imagine if you were to put on a mask on your face, and your partner comes in and unwittingly jumped at how you look. Your partner can quickly compose himself as he knows that it is you behind the mask. But your child is extremely concrete, and is not able to visualise who it is behind the mask.
Letting your child know that there is a person behind the mask may help, and they can even put a mask over their face and show it to you. Or play with them and have them make funny faces and you make a funny face back at them. This helps them to realise that there’s nothing to be afraid of, as you are still you, even with funny face, mask and all.
Fear 3: “No Mummy”
What the child’s thinking: “My comfort figure is gone.”
How to manage: Many children have a huge fear that they may lose their mother. Try leaving them with familiar and trusted adults. Reassure them that Mummy will come back. It could be them staying in the room and Mummy could just pop her head back in to say, “See, Mummy is still here.”
Or Mummy could remain outside the classroom and children can check for a couple of days that Mummy is outside. This method usually works, especially in my clinic, when the child is told that Mummy will wait outside and I will then bring them out to “prove” to them. Mummy can also make it a point to call back at a certain time to chat with the child, as that will ease the fear of the child.
Fear 4: Police
What the child’s thinking: “The police will catch me.”
How to manage: This fear is actually instilled by parents and many adults. How many of us are guilty of overusing the phrase, “If you don’t behave or clean your room, the police will catch you!”
Although kids need to carry out certain behaviour, do we actually need to evoke the word “police” just to make them do it? Maybe it’s time to reconsider our actions first by not instilling an irrational fear towards the innocent policemen who are simply doing their job.
Fear 5: Doctors and Dentists
What the child’s thinking: “Huge needles, pain and horrible tasting medicines.”
How to manage: Since infancy, their only association with the doctors are pain and discomfort. Instead, try rewarding them with a pleasant encounter. It could be a trip to the playground or a meal at their favourite restaurant. It works most of the times, as children would look forward to the event after and are resilient enough to endure the unpleasantness of the current situation.
Fear 6: Loud Sounds / New Foods / New Environments
What the child’s thinking: Senses overload!
How to manage: Many children are not afraid to talk about thunder, different sounds, foods or new environments. However, many of them are overwhelmed by the sights, smells and sound that overload their little brains. Their brains are not able to manage all the sensory inputs that they are receiving; hence, the child may react badly to the situation. Given that some children are more sensitive to others, the parent may need to look at what is startling for the child and help the child manage that. It could be covering the ears of the child if they are upset over the fireworks. Not everyone enjoys fireworks, so don’t assume your child will like it just because you do.
If it is a new environment that the child is in – a new school, for example – maybe it is better to first introduce the child to one person (the main teacher), and then to the classroom. The child could be eased into the class over the next few days with familiar people on hand. Talk to the child about what they see, hear, taste (snacks), smell, and do, to understand if the child has any specific worries.
Fear 7: Toilets
What the child’s thinking: Loud flushing and toilet accidents.
How to manage: Parents may think that this is strange but many children are wary of the toilet maybe because their “potty training” had been stressful. Bring the child to the toilet when you are going. Most of the time, the tendency for them to go will be there if you go. So, try to have frequent toilet trips.
If they are overwhelmed by the loud sound of the flush, have them imagine and tell you what the sound reminds them of. Some children are really creative and describe it as the “tornado” or “it’s raining in the bowl”. Other children are really upset that the toilet flushes on their bum even before they are done. Find out what your child is upset about.
Fear 8: Sleeping
What the child’s thinking: “I can’t play anymore. I didn’t have enough time with my parents. What if I have nightmares?”
How to manage: This fear has lots of implications, and different children have different reasons for fearing sleep. The main reason is a perceived loss (loss of playtime or loss of time with parents). Many children have days filled with activities; since they are allowed their time only before going to bed, many of them would like to stretch this time as long as possible.
Parents also tend to come back late, and time before bed is when it is dedicated to the kids. If this is the case, perhaps you can allow more time for them to play or spend time with you. Tell them exactly how much time they have, or do a countdown by telling them aloud, “15 minutes more”, or “5 more minutes”.
For children who have nightmares, give them a “comfort toy” for reassurance, or let them know that they have access to Mummy and Daddy any time.
Fear 9: Meeting Strangers
What the child’s thinking: It is almost an instinct when the child looks at the stranger with suspicious eyes, as to whether the stranger is a friend or a foe, if they can be safe with the person, or if they will come to harm.
How to manage: This instinct is not a bad thing, and parents should not feel upset or embarrassed when the child hides behind you. Instead, let the child know beforehand that they will be meeting your friends or a new teacher. And as long as Mummy and Daddy are there, and that you’re able to see them with the stranger, let them know that they’re not in any danger. Ultimately, we still want a child to be wary of strangers and just not walk off with anyone.
Fear 10: Creepy Crawlies
What the child’s thinking: “My mum is afraid, so I should be too.”
How to manage: I have seen children reacting violently to creepy crawlies, screaming and running. When I asked what exactly about the insects that they’re scared of, many of them are not able to answer. Instead, they tell me that their mother reacts the same way when they are faced with the insect. These children actually learnt how to react to something by observing how their mothers react to it. This is known as learning by imitation. In order for children to manage their behaviour, maybe parents need to be aware of your behaviour as well.
It is important for parents to take note of your child’s fear and explore a little more about what the fear means to them. The perceptions I have listed above are not limited. Each child perceives things differently, and every child has their own opinions and thoughts. Do take time to talk and find out from your child.
What are some fears your child has?