Fear of bugs, natural disasters, and fictional creatures as well as nightmares are all common in the early years of children’s development. Between the toddler years up through the teenage years, children are rapidly developing their expression of emotions, personal likes and dislikes, and sense of what is a threat to their safety or not. This often comes with the mental and emotional processing of mental images, stress, worry, and fear. Making the connections between children’s development and how to respond supportively and appropriately is important.
Accept your child’s feelings as real. When your child or children you work with express big feelings of fear or worry, a quick understanding response is best to support them through it. Denying children of the feelings that they are expressing can reduce their trust in you as well as in themselves. Prepare yourself to respond as though you believe their feelings to be as big as they are – even if you don’t share the same response to an experience or idea. Avoid minimizing or shaming children for their reactions. Acceptance can aid children processing their emotions more quickly and effectively.
Acknowledge and validate how children are feeling. Allow children to express and bail their feelings and be genuine in your acknowledgement. It can be helpful to name their feelings or describe what they are expressing. It is important for children to hear that what they are feeling is common and normal. Reassure them that everyone feels scared or afraid at times. Part of being a healthy human is feeling and expressing a broad range of emotions. Unless a child asks for some privacy or space. avoid letting children face and process their big emotions alone.
Understand the blurry developmental line between real and imaginary. Children in the early years are still learning the difference between real and pretend, or concrete and abstract. Whether they are exposed to something in a book or movie, a bug on the playground, or something in their imagination that has sparked uncertainty, it can be hard for children to distinguish between what is a real threat and what is something that can’t or won’t harm them. Our adult instinct may be to tell children that something they are imagining isn’t real – because we have many years and experiences that secure and internalize that understanding. Young children on the other hand aren’t always able to do that quite yet. And in a moment of fear, that gap in development can create stress.
Make a plan with your child. When a child is outside the moment of feeling fear, encourage discussion about how you can support them when they are feeling afraid. Make a plan for bedtime if they have nightmares, consider a comfort item that can be used in tough moments, and talk about what can be done or said that might be soothing to them. If you child or the children you work with are pre-verbal or non-verbal, be sure to pay close attention to their body language to notice what soothes them and reduces their stress responses. Regardless of verbal skills, it is most important that this plan is made when children aren’t in the emotional state of being afraid. Big emotions can take over our ability to think rationally through something difficult.
Know your child’s temperament and needs. Most children will benefit from your comfort and reassurance. If a child prefers space or time alone to process their feelings, we should honor that. Additionally, children may respond differently to exposure to things that cause worry or fear. For example, one child who is afraid of bugs may become less afraid by getting some books or watching videos and learning more about them. However, that may not be true for all children. For some children, too much information could give them more to worry about and spending more time on their fear topic could be stress-producing rather than stress-resolving.
Like most challenging phases of childhood, recognize that to a degree, these responses to fears or nightmares are fleeting or temporary. However, the relationship you develop with young children during this difficult phase and the coping strategies they use will last a lifetime and be transferable into other situations when they feel fear. Intentional strategies can help your child develop self-soothing skills and healthy responses when emotions feel big. Most importantly, children will develop self-trust in their reactions and confidence that they can seek support when necessary.