Helping children overcome their fears
At around the age of three most children enter into a magical time where the world of make-believe is the order of the day. Imagination and creativity spring to life. Playtime becomes a setting where wonderful dreams and desires are acted out as children learn how to pretend. A few props can transport them to a magic castle or an enchanted forest.
However, this imaginary world is peopled with villains as well as heroes, with wicked witches as well as good fairies. In a world where anything is possible, new fears emerge alongside exciting discoveries. As the imagination blossoms, children who were never frightened of the dark imagine horrors lurking in every shadow. The neighbour's friendly pooch becomes a menacing wolf, an insect a powerful alien!
Most children will develop one or more deep fears to work through. It might be people wearing masks, old people, or people with scars. It might be parents leaving, or burglars coming. It might be imaginary creatures or wild animals.
A natural response for parents who see their children cowering, is to try to talk them out of their fear. However this only increases the imagined possibilities, and causes the children to feel more vulnerable. Ridiculing or threatening children for their fears is even more damaging.
It is far better to calmly acknowledge the fear. Children need to be reassured of their parents' protection and support. When children see that their parents are taking their concerns seriously, they feel closer to them and better prepared to work through the fears.
Children should never be forced to confront the object of their fears. One of the best ways to help is to provide opportunities to play with non-threatening versions of them. For example, if children are frightened of dogs they could be taken to see a litter of newborn puppies, or encouraged to play with a stuffed toy dog. Children who are afraid of monsters could be given action dolls, and those who are afraid of the dark might be encouraged to play with torches in a darkened room during the daytime.
Parents can help by giving children ideas for working through the fears. For example, if children are afraid of ghosts, instead of telling them that there aren't any ghosts, it might be suggested that the ghosts are probably even more afraid of them. If they say "Boo!" the ghosts will run away!
Modern children's books are a great resource for overcoming fears, and many traditional fairy tales feature children overcoming witches and monsters. However, TV and film can be overwhelming as visual images may remain etched in the memory.
When children first awaken from a nightmare, they need reassurance that their parents are there to protect them, before being gently encouraged to talk about their dream. What occurred in the dream will point towards the issues that need to be worked through.
Children should be encouraged to draw pictures, make up plays or design games through which they can express their fears and overcome them. Child-initiated play is far more valuable than manufactured toys, which often limit the imagination.
Similarly, stories that originate from within the family can be more powerful than children's literature. Stories created by children while playing can be told back or developed upon by their parents.
This phase of a child's life is often great fun, and working through fears can be as valuable as the happy times. The courage they learn during this period will be the foundation for all other virtues. Honesty, love, compassion, loyalty, dreams, ideals, will all be tested by fear.
The depth of their courage will determine how high they can grow.
Far from ignoring her fears, treat them with tenderness and patience. They are an invaluable part of life's journey.