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Helping kids overcome fears

Jen Klein is a New England-based technical writer and mother of three. When she isn't asking her kids to stop bickering, "caramelizing" the dinner or actively ignoring the dust bunnies under the couch, she enjoys knitting, gardening, pho...

Fear or phobia?

Everyone has things they are afraid of of, including kids. If you ask an adult what he or she is afraid of, he or she might answer, "failure," or, "being alone," or some other slightly more abstract concept. Or he or she might mention one of the common fears, such as, "heights," or, "spiders." Ask a kid what he or she is afraid of and you might hear more of those "height" and "spiders" type of answers. That's all fine, and it's all really very normal.

But for some people, including some kids, fears taken on a bigger place in their lives. The fear becomes debilitating, and impedes the ability to function normally. A person - parent or child - might go out of his or her way to avoid any situation in which the fear might have to be acknowledged. I person can feel completely out of control when thinking about this thing of which they are afraid and the fear can trigger panic attack-like symptoms. When this happens, it's more than a fear - it's a phobia.

Kids have fears, too

Just like adults, kids have fears and kids have phobias. Kids can be afraid of just about anything (just like adults), such as taking a test or big dogs or just about anything else. When it's a phobia your child is dealing with, the response of all involved can be challenging: your child may even have a hard time understanding why he or she responds to things in a certain way, and adults may dismiss the behavior as irrational and without basis - or become upset or even angry in response to it.

Getting angry in response to fears and phobias is no help to anyone, and may serve to may a child feel worse about the situation. Validating fears is the first step to helping kids manage the fears and hopefully resolve them over time - whether it's a "simple" fear or something more complex. Then you can manage the fear or phobia in two parts: the response to the fear or phobia by both the child and the parent, and the fear itself.

Some people - kids and adults - find it helpful to learn as much as they can about whatever they are afraid of. While understanding, for example, the physics of lightening and the safest places to be during a thunderstorm might help them manage the fear, it may also serve to help avoid that of which they are afraid more thoroughly. That can be good or not so good, depending on the situation.

When to get help

For some people, including kids, phobias that interfere with every day life and the enjoyment of it may need a professional's help to manage and treat. Your child's pediatrician may be able to help you - or may be able to refer you to someone with specific expertise in helping kids manage phobias - whether it's a fear of heights that is making taking stair to their classroom at school difficult, or just about anything. Regular reassurance that you'll be there to help your child is important, too.

Almost all people have fears of some kind or another, and many people have real phobias. Helping your kids learn to manage fears and phobias early can help reduce negative impact of those issues going forward.

Tell us: How do you help your kids manage their fears? Comment below!

For more on helping kids deal with fears:

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