My four-year-old daughter Annabel was one of those toddlers who practically gave you a heart attack. She climbed everything. She jumped into anything. And she ran, everywhere, all the time, without looking where she was going. At least once a day I heard, “That one is fearless, look out, Mom.” And while she definitely contributed to the majority of the grey hairs on my head, I loved that she wasn’t afraid of anything. Until, one day, she was afraid of everything.
It really feels like something just switched in her. She suddenly won’t go into a room by herself. She’s afraid of the dark. Swimming, something she excelled at, terrifies her and she clings to her instructor. When I ask her why she’s afraid, she says, “I just am.”
It’s very frustrating for me, because as her mom, I want to fix the problem. And of course, as an adult, I know her fears are unfounded. There’s nothing lurking in the dark, there’s nothing wrong with being alone in a room, and swimming is perfectly safe with her instructor, lifeguards, and me all watching! Last year she could swim the length of the local high school pool (I was ready to call the Olympic committee). This year, getting her to let go of her instructor and swim five feet to the wall is a challenge.
I was concerned about what brought on this sudden change, so I spoke with Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist Melissa Springstead to get her professional thoughts. After assuring me the onset of fears is very common, she told me, “As a child’s imagination develops and becomes more and more vivid, she’ll often have difficulty with cause and effect and separating what she imagines (fantasy) vs. what is reality.” She also told me that kids, “Live more with their non-logical and emotional right-brain compared to their logical and literal left-brain.”
That definitely made sense to me. Annabel is constantly acting out fantasies and stories she’s invented, and I’ve sometimes wondered if she has trouble letting go of the elaborate situations she creates. It sounds like fantasy and reality are blending more than we realized.
Still, I don’t want my child to be afraid of things, so I asked Springstead what I could do to help Annie work through her fears. After reminding me there isn’t a “one size fits all” approach, she gave me a few handy things to try:
Connect logic to emotion
Springstead says a way to do this is to, “comfort and listen to your child when they are scared. By helping your child feel comforted, heard and loved, you are speaking to their right brain allowing for balance and the ability to use their left-brain.”
Work together to overcome the fear
Ask your child what you can do to help, and they might surprise you with concrete ways! For example, we let Annie pick out her own night light and that’s made a huge difference in helping her sleep at night.
Let kids talk out their fears, and then explain why they’re safe
“By doing this you are showing them that you care and are listening to their experience, as well as helping them feel like they have some control,” advises Springstead.
Experiment with strategies to solve problems
Trying a bunch of different strategies to find out what works in placating your kid’s fears is a great way to help them.
Take their fear seriously
Springstead says, “This fear is real to them, and telling them to ‘stop being scared’ only heightens their anxiety.”More On