I have a 4-year-old daughter who is very emotional and very sensitive (your story about Caly was so encouraging because I see so many similarities) but these are dramatically intensified by the fact that she is tremendously fearful. Many of the outbursts we deal with stem from situations in which she is so afraid of something that she is just unable to function along with dramatic outbursts. This could be something as simple as hearing a rumble of thunder or even seeing a bug. I wondered if you could speak more specifically to a good approach to dealing with a very fearful child.
Yep, I hear ya. This past week we’ve had fears about ants and ticks and Baby Einstein puppets. For my emotional Caly-girl, fear was a massive issue when she was your daughter’s age, and still is. But thankfully, as God has helped her to grow in self-control, she can now talk calmly about her fears and receive our help.
To answer your question, we had a little girltalk huddle and came up with a few starter-suggestions for helping children deal with fear.
1. First Lessons in Fighting Fear – Our children’s fears present a precious opportunity to teach them how to turn to God in trouble. It doesn’t need to be complicated or elaborate. We can simply pray a little prayer with them when they are scared or teach them a one-line verse, such as Ps. 56:3: “When I am afraid, I will trust in you.” When we comfort and reassure them of our protective presence, it will give them a taste of the comfort of God. Little songs, sung by mom, also go along way to soothing big fears.
2. Self-Control (again) – I know we keep talking about self-control, but especially for the emotional child, this is one of the best ways to help them deal with fear. When Caly was a toddler, she would scream and go into hysterics over a bug. Now she can come and calmly tell us she is afraid of the bug, and receive our assurances that there is nothing to fear. Although we should always comfort a young child when they are afraid, we also want to gently but firmly help them get a grip on their emotions, and resist the temptation to submit to fear.
3. Laugh in the Face of Fear – One of the best ways to help children overcome fear is to teach them not to take their fears too seriously. The brave laugh at fear! So, for example, (and you have to get your timing right) if your child freaks out about a noise in the basement, you might smile and tell them not to worry—it is only the mouse family brushing their teeth before bed! Cheesy, but that’s the idea. Being nonchalant, cheerful, and even funny about fear has gone a long way toward abating Caly’s fears.
4. Brave Mamas Make for Brave Children – How we react to our children’s fears teaches them how they should react. If we take our cues from our children’s emotions and go into panic mode or freak out right along with them, we only reinforce the habit of fear. But if we model tranquil and cheerful emotions, appropriate to the situation, we are showing them what it looks like to be reasonable, and even brave. The stronger our own trust in God, the better we model it for our children. 5. Turn off the Tube – Sheltering can have a bad reputation, but as parents we must be especially discerning about the temptations to fear that can arise from exposure to television, media, even conversations between adults or other children that are scary. Often, we can underestimate the effect of media on a small child’s psyche; even if they aren’t scared of a particular character or scene in a show, the seriousness of the subject matter can have an outsized effect on a small child’s emotions and generate fresh fears.
6. Avoid Lobster Tanks – When I was little, I had nightmares about lobsters, so my mom made a point of avoiding the seafood section of the grocery store. What temptations to fear can you minimize for your child? Maybe you need to buy a night-light or avoid the street with the scary Halloween decorations. Strategic decisions to avoid unnecessary temptations to fear can help make it easier to deal with the many unavoidable situations. And some fears are better left un-faced. For example, I was also afraid of sleeping at other people’s houses when I was a child (you see where Caly got her propensity to fear!), but my Mom wasn’t big on sleepovers anyway, so she never insisted I run into this fear.
7. Hold Their Hand – Once our children have learned to respond with a measure of self-control to fearful situations, we can, carefully and wisely, begin to help them face and overcome specific fears. It is helpful to talk ahead of time about why this is important, explain clearly what small step we want them to take, and pray with them that God would help them to be brave. Then hold their hand until they can do it on their own. By being proactive to help our children overcome one fear, we will teach them how to face many more.
These are just a few ideas. Start small and keep the big picture in view. Our goal isn’t just to raise composed children—we want to give them training wheels to learn how to trust in God. Bugs and thunder can be scary. But by the grace of God, our children can learn how to face their fears.