At children grow they may experience events that are scary or spooky. Times like Halloween can be especially traumatic to the young child. These potentially painful experiences may result in a fearful mindset by the child. What can parents do to help their children avoid or overcome fears?
Children learn how to handle scary events by observing their parents. A child psychiatrist named Bruno Bettleheim relays this story that helps us understand the role of the parent when it comes to learning how to handle scary events.
He recalls that when he was a small boy in London, during the war, air raids were frequent. One night at about 3:00 in the morning his mother woke him up and said something like this to him, "Brono come here to the window. The apartment next door has been bombed and is on fire. You will not have another chance in your life to experience something like this." The next morning Bruno went down stairs to play with a little friend and found him and his Mother still huddled in the corner. He could not understand why they were so frightened.
The people in the apartment were safe. The bombing was over. Bruno's Mother had faced a potentially frightening experience with excitement. She communicated to Bruno that life's experiences are not to be feared but to be enjoyed. The neighbor boy's mother, on the other hand, was teaching her child that we should fear the unknown.
A parent can set the stage for a child so that fears can be put in their proper perspective. If you child tells you that he is afraid of the monsters under his bed, do not look under his bed to assure him/her that there are no monsters there. The mere act of looking sends the message to the child that there could be something there, otherwise you wouldn't look. Rather, assure the child you don't worry about monsters.
Assess to see if your child really wants to be comforted by you. Let him/her know that if they need you for comfort, you are available. You could say something like, "This is your quiet time and my quiet time. I'll be in the living room if you want a hug or to talk. If you call I will come up for a few minutes to check you out." This kind
of approach empowers your child by letting them know how to access you and sends them the message that you have faith in them and yourself. You let them know that any potentially "exciting" (not scary) event can be handled.
A general rule for parents to follow is to comfort the child who feels scared or has been frightened. Give the child time to explain the scary event and let them know that you understand. Then help the child put the event in the past as a learning experience not as an "awful thing" that has flawed them. In this way a scary event becomes a learning experience that is growth producing not traumatizing.
In spite of what parents do, sometimes children will still develop phobias. Phobias are fears that result from an experience with something that was unexpected. It is as if this unexpected experience was immediately hard wired into the brain as a danger. Exposure to similar events in the future automatically send signals to the child's mind to "beware. ‘
Phobias can be weak or strong and, even though they are easily learned, they take a long time to go away. Phobias are best handled by exposing the child to experiences that are similar to the original traumatic event but that he/she can handle. If the child is frightened by a dog, and is afraid of all dogs, be patient with him/her. Set an example for the child by petting friendly dogs and inviting him/her to pet the dog also. Do not force. In time your child will figure out that dogs are not to be feared.
One caution: Do not intentionally frighten children or expose them to events, movies, etc. that are designed to frighten. Because young children have a difficult time determining what is real and what is unreal, what is possible and what is impossible, they can carry fears for a long time. Why frighten them unnecessarily? Why give them information they do not need and that has the potential to cause doubt and fear? You would not want someone to do this to you.
To summarize: Children experience events that are new and unexplainable frequently. They learn how to handle these initial experiences by watching and learning from their parents.