6-year-old Pulkit is scared. He is scared of terrorists, he is scared of monsters, he is scared of policemen, he is also scared of maid. His parents are getting very worried as he is still coming to their room in the middle of the night to sleep with them as he is frightened. What should they do?

Helping children overcome their fears not only ease their anxieties but also provides an opportunity to build on the parent-child relationship.

Why children are afraid. Children do not think like adults. Most of the world is unknown to them and they fear the unknown. The ability to imagine monsters without the ability to understand they are imaginary creatures results in little persons having big fears. Fears vary from child to child. One youngster’s fear is another’s fascination. One child may find the vacuum cleaner a toy while another will imagine it as a big monster, which eats up everything. Children become fearful at different ages, at different intensities and about different issues. The school-age child is more afraid of changes in relationships and health issues (for example, being hit by a car, not being able to breathe, divorce of parents, death).

Helping Your Child Handle Fears

Acknowledge their fears. Don’t give your child the message that it is wrong to be scared. To a growing child, it means. “Something’s wrong with me.” Avoid put-downs like “Don’t be scared,” “Stop being a baby,” “Big boys (or girls) don’t get scared.” These do not put out the fears; they only drive them underground. Now the child is not only afraid of the dark, she is also afraid to tell anybody about her fear or to seek help with handling it. Without reinforcing your child’s fears, empathize with them: “When I was a child, I was afraid of the dark too.” Acknowledge your child’s fears in order to help her work through them. Strike a balance. Do not ignore them but do not overindulge them either. Or your child will play up the fear to get your attention.

When responding to your child’s fears, give them two messages: It is all right to be afraid; and it is good to share your fears and ask for help. Reassure your child that “mom (or Dad) will keep you safe.” Never use or create fears to discipline your child: “The policeman will get you if you get out of bed.” Or “God will punish you if you talk back.”

Model being unfearful. Helping your child handle fears is much easier if you are closely connected with your child. If something or someone is safe for you, then it is safe for your child. Many a child is fearful of insects because he sees an adult having a fit at the sight of a cockroach. Make visits to the doctor less scary by playing “Doctor” with your child’s doctor kit. He hears you talking worriedly about the terror situation and about how unsafe you feel. This may play on his little mind and he may think that if dad is scared then there is need for me to be scared too.

Always take your child’s fear of caregivers seriously. Normally familiarity lessens fear. If your child’s fear at being left with a particular adult, even a relative is getting more intense, change caregivers. Even if foul play seems unlikely, please give your child the benefit of the doubt.

Bedtime Fears. Nighttime is scary time for little people. Fear of the dark and of separation from parents is a double fear that keeps many children awake. Put on a night-light. Cuddle your child off to sleep with a soothing story, massage or song. Leave relaxing tapes playing for an hour or so after she goes to sleep. Young children need these helpers because they cannot use logic to soothe their fears. Ask her to tell you what “dark” means to her. Ask her to draw her fear - what her bedroom and fear looks like. If you get a black page with an orange monster under the bed, you have pinpointed the fear.

Gradually increase exposure to darkness to desensitize the fearful child. Play hide-and-seek at dusk and gradually extend into darkness. Play follow the leader as you weave your way into the slightly dark bedroom and gradually reduce the lighting there. Initially hold your child’s hands as you explore together. Then later, let him walk close to you, then a little further away from you or in front of you. Give your child his own torch to keep next to his bed so that he can turn it on to shed some light onto suspicious piles of clothing that turn into a “bear” when there is only a night-light. Sometimes just knowing that he has the power to change darkness into light is enough to quell his fear. Alternatively, just leave more light on in his room. It won’t interfere with his ability to sleep. He will start turning it off himself when he is older.

Chasing monsters out of bedrooms. “Daddy, there is a monster in my bedroom.” Here’s how to get the child out of the fearful state and ease him into a sleeping one. Let him describe the monster and tell you exactly where it is. Walk around the room together, letting him share his worries. Realize that fearing the monster is a developmental stage in which the monster stands in for a frightening world. Childish fears being what they are – illogical - explanations do not work. A more imaginative response is called for: “I’m the dad in the house and I do not allow monsters in here. He will have to leave.” Then you step into the closet and have a brief talk with the monster.

Do these kind of things mean that you have “caved in” to your childish behavior? No they don’t. They mean you understand what that dark and shadowy room looks like to your child; your recognizing his reality by playing along shows him a way of mastering his fears.

As your child grows older, the problem with joining in on fictitious fears is that you reinforce the idea that monsters do exist. At this age they can differentiate between real and pretend. Tell your older child: “Monsters are only on drawings or TV. They aren’t real. And even if they were real, Mummy would not allow them in our house.” Draw a monster picture and show your six-year-old the difference between real and imaginary. (“Monsters are pretend. Lions are real. Daddy won’t let lions in here either.”)

Banish scary characters from your child’s environment. Turn off scary TV shows and videos. Beware of films and cartoons, which were made with older children or adults. Help your child with differentiating real and imaginary. Tell him how a movie or a cartoon is made. Use puppets. (“See, these are not real; they only talk with your voice or move if you pull a string.”)

Fear can be a clue. Your child’s fear may be the tip of an iceberg. For example, a child with a fear of going to school may actually be worried about coming home to find one parent gone.

Do not ridicule your child’s fears. For her they are very real. Listen to her apprehensions without jumping in to advise her.

Reorient your child with her room at night with the lights off. Point out the new appearance of familiar objects - “That is your chair with the towel over it” or “There is your computer”
Let her draw the monster and talk about it. It is quite paradoxical that children love to talk about what they fear most. This is their way of working through their fears.
Teach her anti-fear statements like “That creep won’t scare me unless I allow him”.
Let her sleep with a ‘weapon” close to her like a cricket bat or hockey stick.
Reward her every time she overpowers her fears and is able to sleep in her bedroom either with a reward chart or just plain praise about her bravery and independence can keep the behavior going.

Most of the time, children outgrow their fears by the time they are ten years old. But as parents we need to play an active part in helping them deal with fears. A fearful child can grow up into an anxious adult who will always be scared of the unknown and never take risks which are an essential part of adulthood.