(scroll down for this month’s Q&A)
Two things I know: All kids get afraid. Parents cannot make those fears disappear. But there’s plenty parents can do — and are better able to once they understand their children’s fears are something to be managed, not eliminated.
We can’t make our children’s fears go away. Only they can do that. Our job is to take those fears seriously and be the support our children need to have the strength to handle their own. I know this from years of personal experience with my very afraid young daughter. I realized that she needed her fears for whatever reason I will never know. As soon as we wrestled with monsters who “went away on vacation” and left her in peace, they inevitably came back from vacation. Or the one’s she decided were her friends and who just wanted to be loved were suddenly replaced by mean ones. They did not go away until she didn’t need them anymore.
Know that your child’s fears are your child’s problem, not yours. Therefore you are powerless to take them away. The better you understand this, the more neutral you can be and the better help you will be to your child.
As much as you desperately want your child’s fears to disappear, your reassurance that all will be well does not help. In fact when you tell your child there’s nothing to be afraid of or everything’s going to be fine, the message your child hears is that you don’t understand and cannot be trusted to help.
Whether nightmares, monsters, images, fear of loss or attack, you can tell your child you will be there to protect and keep her safe, but fears hit when she has to go upstairs on her own, at night when it’s dark, when you are not by her side — because they are in her head. Nothing protects us from our own thoughts but different thoughts.
Once you understand you are your child’s coach and sounding board only, try some of the following:
- Talk about it. The more he describes and names his fear the more material he has to work with.
- Draw the fear. Provide paper and crayons and ask your child to show you what her fear looks like.
- Personify the fear. Ask him to give the monster or the image a name of his choosing. When you talk about the fear use this name.
- Give it attributes. Ask lots of questions like, What color is it? What does it feel like? Is it soft, squishy, hard, spikey, hot, cold. Does it have eyes? What color are they? What kind of sound does it make? Does it have fur or skin? Does it pee and poop? Does it wear clothes, go to sleep, have teeth to brush? Does it get scared? Of what? Let your imaginations go wild. The more your child can make the fear something she can relate to, the more control she will have over it.
- Keep drawing. As your child talks about it and describes attributes, the drawings may change.
- Role play. Take turns being your child and being the fear. Talk to or yell at each other. Ask your child to tell the fear what he wants it to do.
Then, don’t expect that all of this good work will make them disappear. I am convinced children’s fears serve a purpose. Some children have more than others, but all experience fear about something.
This process may not be possible with every fear and your child may not want to do this. Many fears may be very real and stem from bullies, test anxiety, etc. But a form of what is suggested above can be helpful. The older your child, the more you need to tailor the process to what makes sense. Always, the more neutral you are, the more your child will trust you and the process.
Fears come from feeling powerless over an incident, an imagined happening, the future, a nightmare etc. This is the human condition. However, science has offered an amazing antidote to happenings out of our control. To reduce the effects of a traumatic incident that can generalize to similar incidents and even lead to phobias, new research shows that within six hours following a traumatic incident, playing games like Tetris and Candy Crush can reduce lasting effects of the trauma. “…if the process of memory formation is interrupted at this critical period, the memory will be there, but the emotion connected to the initial event won’t be as intrusive.” http://www.heysigmund.com/frightening-experiences-anxiety-phobia/
If trauma has set in and phobias are present, all of the above can be helpful as well as seeking outside help from a therapist specializing in trauma.
Whoever said childhood is the happiest time of life needs their head examined. Children experience everything through the perceptions of an immature brain and developmental egocentrism. Things hit them hard. We must understand how frightening it can feel.
Questions and Answers
Old Beliefs Interfere with Appropriate Discipline
Q. I could never argue my case to my parents and was told not to sass them and be quiet or I wouldn’t get anything I wanted or would have privileges taken away. I didn’t like this but still ended up believing that if I don’t give consequences/punishments to my child, he will keep misbehaving. I will, however, let him make his case when he’s older. Our son is 4 yrs. old. We have a rule not to get into daddy’s toolbox in the garage. He was drawn to one particular tool. I’ve explained that the tools are expensive and that he can only use them with an adult. After 3 times getting the same tool, I finally put it up high. A few days ago I was out in the yard and came back to the garage to find he’d gotten out a tube of Ultra Black – an ultra PAIN to wash off his hands and feet. We also have a rule to stay in the back yard, which we’ve gone over MANY times—he still goes out of the back yard. (We’re waiting for a new fence to be installed.) Is a natural consequence of going out of the backyard that he can’t play outside any more that day? Do I just talk to him about this rule? Are my expectations too high thinking he will just stay in the back yard? Same for not getting into the toolbox?
A. When he can’t follow a rule (the traditional perception tells you he won’t) it’s because his impulses are getting the better of him. Telling him he can’t go outside is confusing at best because it assumes he is deliberately breaking the rule, which he isn’t. Expecting a 4 yr. old to control himself and keep a rule in mind (especially one that blocks his curiosity) is unrealistic. Stay with him outside until the fence arrives. The same with the tools and Ultrablack. Keep the tool shed locked. Punishments or consequences are at best ineffective and at worst, damaging. He is a curious kid. In each of these cases, your son is exploring and experimenting, which you do not want to deter. Keep toxic or dangerous things well out of reach. Tradition tells us that children are being belligerent or defiant when they don’t do what they are told. If they are doing their best or what comes naturally, yet are still punished (given a consequence), that will lead to misbehavior. We set it up. That is what keeps us stuck in the old mindset. Most parents are not fully educated in child development and temperament to know what rules and expectations are realistic and fair. So we project onto our children what was expected of us and expect them to behave as we did (or not as we did). Why put a time on letting your son speak his mind? His opinions and stories are important. You don’t have to agree but feeling unheard, misunderstood is fuel for misbehavior even in very young children.
Trying to Fit In
Q. My daughter will soon be 7 and is a great kid. We speak Spanish to our kids, but for the past year she has refused to speak Spanish to us. She understands everything we say but always replies in English. She has never had any issues when I speak Spanish to her in public until this morning. While dropping her off at camp, she said: “Mama, please don’t speak Spanish to me in front of the counselors: it is embarrassing.” I explained to her that speaking a different language was a great thing and that I was sure that a lot of people would love to be able to do that. I also told her that we should never be embarrassed about our heritage and who we are. I also mentioned that some of her other friends speak other languages at home and in public. Do you have any advice on how to better handle this situation?
A. Your daughter is not old enough to understand her good fortune to be bilingual. Right now she feels embarrassed because she is trying to fit in and you are announcing (in her mind) her difference. She wants to make a good impression on her counselors and fears that they will think you and therefore she are weird. My advice is to heed her cues, appreciate that she asked you respectfully, and continue the way you speak at home to her. When in public, ask her if it’s ok to speak Spanish to her. Respect her wishes. Do not force her to speak Spanish to you or be disappointed that she doesn’t. She may at some point resist you even speaking to her in Spanish at home because of her desire to belong to the culture she lives in. If you resist her, you risk pushing her away from your influence. Your modeling of love for your language and heritage as well as respect for her wishes will be her best teacher, so when she is older and CAN appreciate her heritage, she will because you do. So keep speaking Spanish anytime and everywhere she does not object. The more you respect her, the more she will respect you—and later her culture, if and only if it’s not forced on her.
Q. I wonder how to handle swearing/verbal abuse with my 12 and 14 year olds? This question concerns both general swearing and swearing directed at me.
A. General swearing and directed swearing are apples and oranges. Directed at you, swearing must never be acceptable. It is imperative to find out what the provocation is—what your kids are trying to tell you/get from you by swearing at you. At a calm time, say, “I do not like being sworn at and I’m sure you don’t like it either. Your language tells me you are angry or unhappy about something I have done. I want to hear what that is.” Then you must genuinely listen. Picking your window of opportunity for conversation is critical, so be sure you are not interfering with an important agenda of theirs or you will only instigate further anger. General undirected swearing is hard to curtail especially if you swear, and ESPECIALLY when parenting teens. It is their language, I’m afraid. I think it helps to allow it at home instead of forbidding it as long as it doesn’t get excessive and is NEVER directed at anyone—just used as an expletive. Some words are powerful. Kids need to feel powerful. If you forbid swearing it becomes a loaded power source. It should be clear that as powerful as words are, they should never be used abusively. Let them know that swearing needs to stay at home because it can be highly offensive to others. Ask for their assurance that they can control themselves in public to show respect. If you are one who is offended by any kind of swear, own your problem with it and ask for their cooperation around you. “Words like that cut me to the core. I would appreciate you keeping them out of my hearing range as well as others who would be offended.” Then if you are sworn at, you know they are punishing you for something. Find out what it is.
She just wants to be understood
My 4 ½ yr. old daughter is very bright and determined. She has had a few adjustments to cope with this last year (new baby brother, starting preschool etc). And her behaviour has deteriorated, especially at bedtime. She will scream and demand what she wants in a rude manner if she doesn’t get her way. Based on your advice, I decided to approach her differently. Last night she was upset because I was busy with the baby and she wanted me to do bedtime with her instead of Daddy. My husband stood firm and reminded her that Daddy loves her too and it will be a Daddy bedtime tonight. She lost it. She told him to go and leave her alone. She started crying and yelling, stopping occasionally I think to see if we were paying attention. I gave my son to my husband, went to her in her bedroom, squatted down to her level and said ”I bet you’re feeling really frustrated that you’re not getting a Mummy bedtime like you want. I know that it can be hard having to share Mummy with your baby brother but a Daddy bedtime can be just as good as a Mummy bedtime and Daddy loves you as much as Mummy does. Feeling so angry will make it hard for you calm down for a sleep. So how about you get all your anger and frustration out and do some stomping in your room, and then when you’re ready, let Daddy know and he’ll come and do bedtime with you. She agreed. She shut her bedroom door. We heard stomping and a few cries. Then a few minutes later she came out and said, ”Daddy I’m ready for bedtime,” and went to bed easily and with no complaints! Thank you for giving us advice to listen to what our children need and to give them permission to feel what they are feeling but still be able to hold firm to the boundaries that they need so badly.