Charles A. Smith, Ph.D.
Human Development Specialist
Human Development and Family Studies
Kansas State University Cooperative Extension
Healthy fears are a part of everyday life. They help adults and children recognize and respond quickly to danger. Sometimes, however, fears keep people from things they want to do. Caregivers can help children deal with their fears in many ways. Here are some suggestions to consider.
ESTABLISH AN ATMOSPHERE OF ACCEPTANCE AND RESPECT. Children need a safe place to express their fears openly. Any fear is very real to children, no matter how unreasonable it appears to us. Avoid responding to children's fears by ridiculing, shaming, punishing, overprotecting, or ignoring.
UNDERSTAND HOW CHILDREN'S FEARS DEVELOP. Some fears are very normal at certain ages. With time, children usually outgrow these fears. Infants fear loud noises, strangers, and separation from parents. Toddlers fear strangers, separation from parents, and the unknown. As their imaginations grow, preschoolers and school-age children fear the dark, being injured, animals, being left alone, and death. In addition to these fears, older school-age children worry about not living up to the expectations of parents and teachers. During adolescence, teenagers often worry about the possibility of things such as nuclear war and natural disasters.
ESTABLISH A PREDICTABLE ROUTINE. A consistent daily routine provides children with a sense of power and control. It lets them know what to expect. Children's fears often stem from a lack of information about what is happening in their lives. When special activities occur or changes in the routine are necessary, talk with the children about what will happen.
PREPARE CHILDREN FOR STRESSFUL SITUATIONS. Activities such as field trips, visitors, or fire drills can be frightening. Often, children are afraid because they do not know what to expect. Before the event happens, talk with the children. Ask them what they think will happen. Help them understand what is likely to happen. Involve children in a group discussion following the experience to discuss what really happened.
TEACH CHILDREN HOW TO COPE WITH FEAR. Use words like "afraid," "fear," and "scared" to talk about how children feel. Talk about some of the fears you experienced when you were young. Talk with children about things you did when you were afraid. Explain how and why you did those things.
RECOGNIZE CHILDREN'S MOMENTS OF PERSONAL COURAGE. Take the time to notice when children courageously face personal fears. Express pride when you see them conquer a fear, such as climbing the jungle gym or joining a group of new friends.
Recognize when children's fears are excessive. Recommend that the parents seek professional help if the child's fear becomes disruptive to his life. Consider the following questions when reaching this decision. How long has the fear persisted? Is the fear harmful to the child? Is the fear interfering with normal behavior or relationships? Is the fear preventing the child from actively participating in life?
Plan activities that allow children to express their feelings. Children can express their feelings of fear and courage through singing songs, dictating and writing stories, reading stories, drawing pictures, or role playing. Here are several activities to try.
PURPOSE: to help children learn the difference between reasonable
and unreasonable danger.
SETTING: large open area.
MATERIALS: balance beams (you can use long, wide pieces of wood on the ground.)
1. Set up the balance beams in a large open area.
2. Ask the children to pretend that the beams are bridges across imaginary water.
3. Have the children walk one by one across the bridges by placing one foot in front of the other.
4. Encourage hesitant children gently. Help them recognize their feelings of fear as well as their abilities to conquer it.
PURPOSE: to help children become aware of fear and courage.
SETTING: Bulletin board or wall.
MATERIALS: a large piece of plain paper and magazine pictures that illustrate fear and courage.
1. Draw a front page of a newspaper on the plain paper. Title it "The Classroom Daily" - Fear and Courage Issue.
2. Talk with children about fear and courage. Use their ideas to write newspaper articles. Highlight the children's names by their comments.
3. Illustrate some of the comments with the magazine pictures.
4. Display it on the wall or bulletin board where parents can see it.
PURPOSE: to provide children with a creative outlet for expressing
fears related to nightmares.
SETTING: Art Center. Have a few children participate at a time.
MATERIALS: large grocery sacks stuffed with wadded newspapers and taped shut, yarn, tempera paint, brushes, smocks, glue, construction paper, and scissors.
1. After reading *There's a Nightmare in My Closet*, have the children make their own nightmares.
2. Spread the art supplies out on the table. Use the stuffed grocery sacks as the head and body. Suggestion: Older children could write or dictate stories about their individual nightmares.
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