Childhood Fears

(scroll down for this month’s Q&A)
Childhood FearsTwo 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.

First you:

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.”

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

Kid getting into troubleQ. 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

Embarrassed ChildQ. 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.



Teenage swearingQ. 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.


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32 comments on “Newsletter
  1. amy russell says:

    So true. I appreciate the simplicity of the message: let go of the fear and be there. Thank you.

  2. Anita says:

    How very true! I feel so guilty of not been able to do just this 1 thing – “Be there for her”.
    But as I read this article, I find some hope that it is never too late to change

  3. Amelia Trabilsie says:

    That’s brilliant Bonnie, I can never get enough of these messages; sometimes the same message “wrapped up” in different ways, and every time it makes it more and more easy to absorb and take on board in an unconscious/subconscious way. Thank you for these gifts Bonne! Warmest Amelia 🙂

  4. Kristi says:

    Amen Bonnie,
    For many years my son was overwhelmed with the stimuli of the world and fell apart multiple times daily. He would become a screaming, writhing, spitting creature who scratched his own face to bleeding trying to deal with the difficulty of ordering food from a menu! So many public breakdowns it was so hard to know what we should be doing! Get tough and demand that he “behave”? Well that really didn’t help. Thanks to you and a local therapist I learned not to get caught up in MY emotions when he was out of control of his, just be there. We learned to limit the stressors for him. Today he is a different kid. Successfully navigating the high school waters of intellectual, social and physical challenges and knows when he has had enough and needs to have some downtime. As a primary care provider who sees a lot of parents struggling-I tell them to relax-be there, keep them safe and don’t take their behavior personally- and of course I recommend your books and website! Keep up the great work, and thank you.

    • admin says:

      Kristi – Thank you so much for this comment. I hope everyone reads it. I may even add it to another article when I share parents experiences. You have been in the trenches and know what it’s like to have a difficult kid, didn’t try to change him, and came out the other end with a great kid. These stories are so important for parents to read.

    • Betsy says:

      “Don’t take their behavior personally” — This has become a mantra for me, thanks to Bonnie’s advice. I wish I had employed it when she was a toddler and preschooler. But better late than never!

  5. Amber says:

    hi bonnie,
    thanks for sharing this. I worry about my daughter a lot too, but I guess I don’t give her enough credit either.

  6. Kirsten says:

    This was a timely piece for me. Had just done back to school night and came home to an 11 year old anxious about leaving all his school work at a friend’s house. He was anxious and I had listened to the message of the night, “let them have these experiences where it is safe, don’t rescue them, 70% of this year is organization”, but I knew what my own child needed in order to sleep wasn’t my fear that he wasn’t ever going to pull it together…I also have a much more emotionally challenging middle son (9) and he is often trying so hard, but so inflexible about the actions of others, and still having tantrums, yet intelligent, sweet, and sensitive, sometimes the scariest part is when we aren’t present and then everything gets catastrophic. I was pleased to see the comment above and curious as to how Kristi got through the trenches without worrying about the impact on the family and her son’s self image ?

  7. Amelia Trabilsie says:

    Kristi your comment was so good to read, thank you too 🙂

  8. Leah Davies says:

    I love your quote, “You are your child’s mountain. While she swirls and blows like a hurricane, sometimes a tornado, around you, she needs to count on your stability and most of all your faith that she has and will continue to have whatever it takes to get through whatever it is” That is wonderful advice. – See more at:

    For 11 additional complimentary parenting handouts, video, and activity that is dedicated to helping parents raise responsible, caring adults, see:

  9. Kristi says:

    In response to Kirsten’s question: it wasn’t elegant, or seamless or a straight path, (and still isn’t) that’s for sure – but I think that is the essence of parenting. No matter what our virtual personas (or that of our friends) depicts to the outside world. It’s messy and scary. Parenting can be like walking alone in a dark forest. We learned to recognize early when WE needed counsel, we also allowed our son a chance to intermittently work with a child therapist, and brought along his sibling. One of my biggest realizations was: I needed to let go of MY agenda for my child. He is who he is, AND he is not this behavior currently. I learned (to try) not to get attached to ANY behavior, whether I liked it or didn’t like it, because it is likely to change. The family dynamic is a huge challenge always. My husband and I try to find common ground and create a united front. We learned it didn’t matter what other people thought we should do with our child, including family… we simplified life. Keep them fed, safe, loved. Keep looking out of the trench occasionally for some inspiration Kirsten and remember “This too shall pass” !

    • admin says:

      Kristi – This is so beautifully put. I so appreciate your response. I totally agree – families are a messy business not matter that they look like. Parenting is the hardest job on the planet. I love the steps of your realizations and how you maneuvered your way.
      Thanks for this.

  10. MK says:

    What you write Bonnie rings so true for me. What can I do when I realise that the way I was parented undermined my confidence and felt like it cut me off at the knees. I feel I have very little resilience myself and don’t want to make the same mistakes. How can I build my own confidence along with my daughters?

    • admin says:

      MK – What you are describing is exactly why I wrote my book, When Your Kids Push Your Buttons. It is all about how our own childhood experiences effect how we parent our children – and most importantly, what we can do about it. I would highly recommend checking it out. You can get my book on amazon, you can get the audio download version of it on my website, you can also order the workbook filled with exercises to go along with it. And I have a When Your Kids Push Your Buttons teleseminar available for download that is 12 hours of the Buttons workshop and has the workbook included for more intense work. You can read about it here.

  11. i love the simplicity of this message! This is a challenge for me at home with two teenagers and the ups and downs that teenage life brings. I recognize how my frustration may have actually been perpetuated by my own actions of protecting and solving problems that they should be given the chance to handle themselves. With a college student 1200 miles away this challenge becomes more complicated at times. My goal is to practice by stepping back this week.
    Bonnie… I would love to add a link for this article on my preschool blog, which is private to families enrolled at The Amherst Preschool. Is that possible?
    Thank you
    Ellen Grudzien

  12. The question about teen disrespect brought up a few things for me.
    I’m passionate about this because I grew up with a father like this. He rarely listened to me. He only wanted a relationship on his terms. He was disrespectful to me and never apologized. As a result even as an adult I was never able to be close to him (Despite many attempts). Because he couldn’t be human with me I never respected him. Instead I felt sad for both of us. He was too proud to meet me as a human being. We both lost something valuable.

    In many families, ideas about “obedience” and “respect” get intertwined. Obedience is an action, respect is a feeling. Obedience comes from power over and respect comes from power with. Obedience is enforced using power and it disconnects the two people involved (and creates escalating power struggles). Respect relies on relationship and connections and comes from influence, not force. Like toddlers who are learning who they are in the world, teens too go through a developmental stage of learning about power. When a 4 year old is stubborn and says no or demands that she has to do it her way it can still be “cute”. Not so with a 14 year old.
    14 year olds want to be engaged and respected. This comes from listening, being humble and over and over again repairing mistakes. Adults get to lead on this. (We have the more developed prefrontal cortex).
    Working with a partner who is demanding obedience is challenging but using the same tools that are effective with teens work for partners too. Connect before correct.
    When (teen) is yelling and being inappropriate, it seems like you are worried that he will not grow up to be a healthy adult. You dream of having a son who has manners and treats others respectfully. I appreciate it that you are willing to stand up for me (This is the connect).
    Then the correct or request: My request is that when you sense he is being disrespectful to me that you ask before you intervene. I promise I won’t ignore the problem. My approach will be to wait until things calm down and then ask him to make a repair. I want him to be able to make mistakes – even if they are disrespectful and then have time to think about them and repair them.

    The other thing this mom can do is coach her son on making repairs and asking for repair. If the relationship isn’t already too strained it could be a gift to his dad. Eg. Dad, you were right. It was not cool for me to yell at mom. I’ve apologized to mom. I also didn’t like it when you called the police. When you are ready I’d like an apology and would like to make a plan about how to solve problems when you are angry.

  13. Karen Daley says:

    My husband and I have been having this food argument since our son started solid foods. He’s 10 now. My husband still eats as if he’s a teenager, pizza, chips, pop,etc. & I gave up junk food when I became an adult, minus my once a month sugar fix a week before my cycle starts. We work different shifts so when I’m home it’s all the good stuff & when my husband is home he’s either a short order cook, making two different meals or they are munching on take out (grease & more grease)when there is a full fridge of healthy options. My son knows all about healthy eating & all the good stuff is served in school. How do we all get on the same “healthy eating” page?

    • admin says:

      Karen, it is of course important to convince your husband that modeling good food eating and having only good food in your house is important. You might talk to him about what he thinks in terms of his own health and if he approves of your son following in his tracks. Make sure he understands how serious you are about this issue and what your worry is.

  14. Mary Ellen says:

    In response to “Transitions from Day Care”, sometimes children fall apart because they are exhausted from their day. Not because of stress or because they don’t want to stop playing, but because they have run out of inner resources. None of us deals well with change at the end of a long day, but people will look funny if we act howwe are really feeling! :o)

    • admin says:

      Thank you Mary Ellen. You are so right. I include exhaustion and lacking inner resources with stress. Stress comes in many degrees and varieties. When children are stressed in any way, they need our understanding and patience more than ever.

  15. Julietta says:

    I resonated with the one about “stupid”. Sometimes my son calls me stupid or dumb, too. In addition to the strategies Bonnie suggests in her reply to the reader’s question, all of which I totally agree with, my strategies for dealing with this have been 1) to say “Please leave off the label” (obviously we’ve had discussions about what i mean by “label”) – with a tone of request, not reprimand/disapproval, ie telling him what I want him to do rather than telling him off. After all, kids learn to use labels at school – it is common behaviour at school. It is natural that he’ll emulate that behaviour. But together the two of us can carve out better ways of being. It’s about teaching, not telling off. 2) The other thing I do, which seems most effective, is to state, calmly & as a fact, not a reprimand: “No, I’m not stupid. Sometimes I make mistakes but I certainly am not stupid.” ie, call him to account on throwing around labels without thinking, by challenging him to think about what it means & whether it’s true – while at the same time requesting the respect I think I deserve (& modelling it by respecting myself). Saying it in a calm tone, also involves refusing to respond with an upset tone, because as you point out, if they get a rise from it that’s why they keep doing it. (Fun to make Mum, or brother, react!) – of course, my son is older, but these suggestions might help someone. All these strategies are founded in ideas from Connective Parenting. Also – just want to say that telling my child what i “DO” want him to do – not what i don’t (as in the main article) – has been one of the most effective ‘tricks’ i’ve learnt.

    • admin says:

      Thanks for this Julietta. All great suggestions when your child calls you stupid. And of course in order to practice any of this, you have to be able to respond rather than react. And that means not taking it personally, understanding why your child wants to use a strong word, and responding to him in a way that is logical not blaming.

  16. Kate McGuire says:

    What a great newsletter to read as my child breaks up from his first year at nursery. I was wondering what I should do with him but now am feeling less pressure and that just “being” with him – truly present, is enough. These are precious years, you are right, and by taking the pressure off myself and him, we get to have a much more fun, playful time. Which is what life is all about, I believe. Thank you as always Bonnie.

  17. Resa Aschbacher says:

    Parenting is such a learned skill! I have four children all grown into their 20’s now. What I thought was personality driven behavior I now realize was “Parenting Skills” driven. My oldest got the parent, me, who punished the anger. My youngest got the parent, again me, who opened her arms for a hug. I am so sorry I didn’t have more skills when I had my first child. He forgives me!

    • admin says:

      The wonderful thing Resa, is that it is never too late. The fact that your son forgives you says that you owned your mistakes and asked for his forgiveness. That in itself is so huge and what sooooooo many of us parents wish our parents would do. Good for you for having that courage—because that is what it takes.

  18. Yvonne says:

    I am especially encouraged to hear information on how to help children who are misbehaving to act more responsibly. I have grandchildren and I am a fifth-grade teacher who has seen behavior affect relationships and learning

  19. Cheryl says:

    …Dear Bonnie,
    Thank you for sharing your insights especially about the “disinterested” teen, your advice is so on target and so needed!! My son was extremely much ahead of grade level in 1-6th grade and as a sophomore in high school is still struggling to acquire study skills and inner motivation to do well academically. He gets easily discouraged with low grades and doesn’t want to spend time fixing them which is taking an enormous toll on his academic record. Like the teen in your message he also likes to spend a lot of time in his room alone online gaming or on his cell phone. But his circle of friends is actually into gaming and he visits with them every day via the internet and cell phone. I often times hear him conversing with them and laughing and singing joking talking … so I think the mentality of todays’ social world is very different than when we grew up in terms of “connectivity” (pun intended) It has taken me a while to be able to accept this as a valid form of socialization- but I think he values these connections as friends. It’s just that the face time isn’t there and sometimes I wonder if those with shy tendencies actually become a bit more shy when face time is added to the equation when its time to actually visit with people. I’m trusting that enjoying being around others is linked with developing nuances of communication styles and that will come with maturity and life experience.
    Thanks again for the excellent and caring work you do that contributes a great deal to understanding how to be a better parent!