Opinion piece

Mental health: Dealing with childhood fears

Since most of us can remember some of our childhood fears, and how uncomfortable they were, it is important for us to be able to comfort our own children. We know how frightened they can be of monsters, and it’s reassuring that we can tell them with certainty that there are no such things as monsters and ghosts. We can truthfully tell them that there’s nothing to be afraid of when fears are in imagination, not in reality.

Unfortunately, today’s children are having to deal with a reality that is scary. They hear about abductions, and children being hurt. They see posters about missing kids. We cannot tell them that these “real” monsters do not exist. What can parents do help their children with the terrifying thoughts that plague them?

Well, we cannot tell them that there is nothing to fear, or we’ll lose credibility right away. We must acknowledge that this stuff is scary, and that we understand how they feel. We must assure them that it’s okay to feel scared. Then we can explain that fear is a feeling, and that we do have some control over it. If we think a lot of scary thoughts, then the fear grows bigger. If we think thoughts of safety and of things going well, then the fear grows smaller.

Sometimes fear grows because of the pictures we make in our minds. If we make frightening pictures, then we will frighten ourselves. If there is a scary picture in our minds, we can “change the channel” and replace it with a comforting picture.

We need to teach children how to gain control over their thoughts, as this is the only way to really manage fear. When they learn that they can do this, they can even begin to control what happens in their dreams (making friends with the monster or asking it to go away). Fear is intensified by the feeling that one has no control over what happens. Teaching children safety skills gives them a sense of control.

Teaching them that sticking together makes them safer also reduces their sense of vulnerability. Explaining that when they follow all the safety rules they can protect themselves, empowers them. Children need more than reassurance; they need strategies. The most frightening feeling is powerlessness. When fear comes we must find our power, teach it to our children, review and implement our strategies, and then get on with life. If we live in fear, and transmit this fear to children, then they are really scared.

We can be strong and teach them to be strong. And we’re strongest when we stick together and watch out for each other.

Gwen Randall-Young is an Alberta author and award-winning psychologist.