Too often, I am working with families who are struggling with relatively common fear-related problems that can be easily eliminated with clear understanding and the right intervention. These problems, if handled poorly, can evolve into more serious challenges that have a substantial impact upon self-esteem and confidence. Thus, it becomes important to address these in a way that eliminates the fear component quickly, while simultaneously strengthening a child’s ability to cope and handle challenges.
These common fear-related issues might include separation anxiety at school, staying in bed, going upstairs alone without an adult, reluctance to leave mom or dad to play a sport, or fears of initiating almost anything new. This also is a significant factor in certain custodial situations where a child may be avoiding time with a parent because a “discomfort” evolves into a fear.
1. What we avoid gains power over time. It never weakens.
With years of research, we see that virtually every fear that children (and adults) experience is subject to this principle. Regardless of the initial reason, if we avoid what we are afraid of, that “fear” gets stronger. When events such as being anxious over new events, staying in bed alone or going to get a toy upstairs are avoided, the fear only grows. It never goes away. The same is true for phobias and other anxieties based upon some external cause that we can easily avoid.
Solution: Do not empower avoidance of the feared. Allow them to face it.
Of course, if there is legitimate reason for fear, this does not apply. But that is not relevant in the wide majority of situations. In most cases, the fear response is disproportionate to the thing, event or person feared. And if we empower or support ways for our child to avoid the source of fear, the anxiety and fear only gets worse.
The key is set up our home and life so that we do not help our child avoid the fear repeatedly. Of course, we may demonstrate that there are no monsters under the bed a couple times, or show them that the new coach is a nice guy. This is normal and helpful.
So where’s the problem? The problem is when we do this repeatedly, day after day, week after week, and month after month.
Instead, show them there is nothing to fear, but only a couple of times. Then, allow them to find their way through the fear, by facing it. It’s a simple understanding, but one that is critical to embrace if we want to be helpful.
2. When we enable fear, we convey incompetency and inadequacy.
Most of us would never say to our child, “Sweetheart, you are just weaker and less capable than your friend or your brother. You just don’t have what it takes.”
NO! This would never happen. Yet, when we repeatedly feed into our children’s fears, the message conveyed (in the subtext of our actions) is, “Sweetheart, you are not ready yet. You can’t handle this situation, so I will do it for you.”
Solution: Convey your faith in them in words and actions.
How do we this? It’s simple. Let them know that you understand that they are upset or afraid and that it is critical to trust you. There is nothing to be afraid of that can really harm them. Otherwise, you would do something.
Next, prepare them to get through their upset. Give them one of your real life examples, of how you did something even though you were afraid. And finally, assure them that you are certain that they can handle this situation and that “you will get through this, honey, and you will figure it out; I guarantee it.” Then, let them face it and stop protecting them (if you want them to get stronger).
If we bring these lessons together, your child will have the opportunity to learn about his or her own strength. This is, in reality, the ONLY way kids learn about their strength.
No one can give this to us. We only get this lesson by living our way through the tough moments, and the same is true for your child.
Dr. Randy Cale offers practical guidance for a host of parenting concerns. For more information visit www.TerrificParenting.com.