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Published August 06, 2012, 11:30 PM

Treat kids’ fears as reality even if based in fantasy, experts advise

In his 1933 inaugural address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But fear can be a pretty scary thing, especially for a child.

By: Tracy Frank, INFORUM

In his 1933 inaugural address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

But fear can be a pretty scary thing, especially for a child.

Child development specialists say parents should take their children’s fears seriously, even if it’s fear of an imaginary monster under the bed.

“It’s important for parents to respect any expression of fear that a child expresses and provide a comforting response,” said Sean Brotherson, North Dakota State University Extension Service family science specialist and associate professor of Human Development and Family Science.

“Don’t simply dismiss a child’s concern or fear,” he said. “It’s an indicator that they have significant anxiety about something and they are seeking a parent’s comfort and security.”

Dr. Eduardo E. Meza, a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist with Prairie St. John’s in Fargo, said fear is often a part of normal development.

Normal worries occur at different points during development in about 70 percent of children and adolescents, he said.

“Normal fear is an adaptive reaction to a real or perceived threat,” he said, adding that abnormal anxiety comes from unrealistic reactions.

Even infants can be anxious, said Jane Gaffrey, a child psychologist at Sanford.

“Infants are often more fussy if parents are stressed out,” she said. “Babies sense anxiety and stress in parents.”

Many factors can cause children and adolescents to develop anxiety disorders, Meza said.

“Genetic factors such as family history and certain temperamental traits, parent-child attachment factors, and other contributors such as parental anxiety and parenting style, have all been implicated in the genesis of anxiety disorders in children,” he said.

Children whose parents have anxiety are also at increased risk of experiencing anxiety, Gaffrey said.

Bad experiences and trauma can also cause them to be afraid, she said.

Common kid fears

Joni L. Medenwald, a counselor in The Village Family Service Center’s Moorhead office, said it’s common for children to have fears as they learn about the world in which they live and how to navigate their environments. As children grow, their fears change, she said.

Some of the common fears Medenwald sees in the children she works with are fear of the dark, fear of going new places or being around new people, fear of being separated from caregivers, fear of harm towards themselves or their family members, and far-off media-related events such as shootings, kidnappings, or car accidents, she said.

“Often what I hear from kids is they saw something through a media outlet like a movie, TV program, video game, the news or from a peer,” she said. “From there, the children internalize the information and it grows into a personal fear of their own.”

There is also a developmental progression in common fears during childhood, Meza said.

How parents can help

If your child expresses a fear, listen to him or her, said Angela Berge, NDSU Extension Service agent and parenting resource coordinator.

“Acknowledge the feelings behind the fear,” Berge said. “Never minimize the fear or belittle the child. Keep the child’s perspective and find that it’s very real to the child.”

To help children deal with their fears, Medenwald said parents should talk with them about their fears and where they come from. Then, they should help the child develop a response by explaining why their worry is unlikely to happen. They should also develop a safety plan with the child of how to respond if a fear becomes a reality, she said.

“Also, monitoring the media outlets children are exposed to will limit their knowledge of various local or national tragedies or events,” she said.

Berge said you should also never force a child to face the fear head on. Over time you may be able to gently expose a child to his or her fear through books, observation and talking about it.

Practicing a new situation – like the first day of school – can be a way to help children with a fear of transitions, she said.

“Helping a child to feel safe and secure and to acknowledge and accept those feelings of fear are really important pieces,” Berge said.

An expression of fear is a signal that a child needs reassurance and security, Brotherson said. It’s important to listen to your child, provide reassurance, and take whatever concrete steps are reasonable to work through the fear, he said.

“Most fears that children express tend to be temporary and associated with a particular developmental period,” Brotherson said. “The likelihood is that if a child gets reassurance and support, they will tend to outgrow most fears that are temporary within a fairly reasonable period of time.”

Gaffrey suggests parents prepare their children for a potentially scary event, like visiting the doctor, in advance.

“Anticipatory anxiety is normal and doesn’t mean that telling them ahead of time was a bad idea,” she said. “Just don’t tell them very far ahead of the feared event or there will be too much anxiety ahead of time.”

Parents should reassure their children without taking away their feelings or criticizing them by saying things like, “that must have been scary” or “it’s hard to say goodbye,” Gaffrey said.

When dealing with a child with separation anxiety, never sneak away without saying goodbye, she said.

“This actually increases anxiety in the long run,” she said. “If a child has a lot of anxiety, separate for brief periods at first and always come back when you say you will come back.”

Professional guidance

A parent should seek professional help for their child if the child’s worry or fear causes changes in their normal behavior, physical distress, such as headaches or stomachaches, if the child avoids situations or places, or if the child is unable to move past the worry or fear, Medenwald said.

She said a child may have an anxiety disorder if the anxiety occurs for more days than not for at least six months, the child is unable to control the worry, the worry disrupts the child’s life, or the child has three or more of the following symptoms: restlessness, easily fatigued, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, or difficulty with sleep.

Another sign of a possible anxiety disorder is if the fear seems inappropriate for the child’s age, Meza said.

Therapists can help children understand their anxiety and the signals their bodies give off telling them their anxiety is growing, Medenwald said.

“Through individual and family therapy sessions, professionals have a multitude of options for helping youth reduce the intensity and frequency of anxiety,” she said.

They can also teach coping skills, relaxation and calming strategies, and practice desensitization to fears. Anti-anxiety medications can be used with therapy to aide in the reduction of symptoms, Medenwald said

There are several very effective treatment options for anxiety disorders, Meza said, adding there’s strong support for cognitive behavioral therapy.