Understanding childhood fears

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Neena Jacob

I was so happy to see my friend Marguerite Theophil’s article in the Speaking Tree, where she wrote about ‘Worry Dolls, Gobbling Monsters and Ouch Buddies’. According to her in Guatemala if worrying keeps a person awake, he tells his worry to one of a set of tiny homemade dolls. These dolls are placed under the worrier’s pillow and are meant to take over the worries. Marguerite writes that she tells the kids that the doll takes over the worry and in exchange gives them wisdom and knowledge so that the next day they can look for ideas on how to solve the problem or share the problem with a trusted adult. In hospitals in the US, tiny soft toys called ‘ouch buddies’ are given to children to hold when they have to face a medical examination or a dreaded injection.

How wonderful that the fears can be expressed openly and addressed instead of just being told – ‘It’s nothing’ or ‘be brave’.

First of all, it’s normal for a child to feel fear. I suppose this is what makes them cautious. Things that are new or big or loud or smelly can seem scary.

So let’s see what kids are scared of.

* Babies recognise the faces of people they know that is why new faces scare them and they cry and cling to their parents.

* Toddlers start feeling scared to be left alone at a babysitter or play school or at night in a separate room.

* Young kids are scared of imaginary things like monsters, ghosts; they feel these may be lurking in dark corners under the bed or in the cupboard. Many are scared of the dark or of loud noises or fires or thunder and lightning.

* Kids over 7 years of age fear real things. They have now outgrown the monster now it is more real – a tsunami, an earthquake, a fire, COVID-19, class tests, a bully at school, not having friends or not being able to play.

* Preteens and teens may have social fears such as ‘Will I fit in’, ‘What will someone say’, ‘Will I remember to say the correct thing’ or ‘Will I pass’.

What can parents do?

* Toddlers: Just hold them and let them know you are there. Hold them close and soothe them. Sing to them and give them a favourite toy to hold.

* Kids over 7 years of age: Listen to them, be calm and soothing. Help your child express what he/she is afraid of. Let them draw and you can help them understand what they are scared of, especially the natural phenomena. Support them in trying new things and make sure they are well prepared and dressed appropriately.

* Separation should be approached in a phased manner. Let your child be exposed to short periods of separation. Say you will be back, and give a hug when you leave and when you return. Let your child be confident that you will come back, then slowly increase the time of separation.

* Darkness: Have a soothing routine – brushing teeth then a bath followed by a cuddle and a chat or a story being read or listening to music. Let your child feel safe and loved. If needed have a night light.

* Monsters: Check all the places they may be lurking in. Let your child feel there’s nothing to be scared of and help her/him grow in courage. Limit the scary movies, stories or games. Here is where the worry dolls can come in. Write the worry and place it in the dolls pocket. It will be better if the worry note is destroyed or taken away by the time your child wakes up. Maybe you can leave a message of understanding to be found.

* Preteens and teens have to know you are behind them and will support them. Help them prepare for tests and contests, and let them know it is okay to fail, but one must never give up.

Some kids, however, have extreme fears which keep them from a normal routine and if this persists please seek professional help. At Sethu we have an amazing counsellor who can definitely help.

When should you contact a counsellor?

If the fear is extreme and persists for long

If it leads to tantrums and extreme anxiety

If your child won’t leave you for any activity like playing or going to school or sleeping alone.

If your child gets breathless or dizzy and has stomach aches or headaches.

Fears sometimes are unexplainable, my son is so fearless now, but as a child the one thing that scared him was butterflies. Now as an adult he can control that fear but he says they still make him edgy!

I worry still though I am 60! Due to the pandemic will I see my kids? Will things be normal again?

Happy Parenting

(Writer is a volunteer in local schools and a trustee with Sethu)