In all families things sometimes go wrong. Most children, for instance, develop fears of one sort or another. Whenever a child has fears it is a sign he needs greater reassurance and understanding. Fears are the symptom and parents must look for the cause behind them. Sometimes the cause is simple and lies in an immediate experience; at other times it is necessary to look much deeper for it.
The attitude of the youngster’s parents when a child is afraid may increase his fear or help the child overcome it. If the parents remain calm and seemingly unafraid, the little child can be helped to be less afraid too. This does not mean that parents should ignore the child’s fear. If a child is afraid they should accept his fear as very real to him. They should not scold or shame him about it. Give the child reassurances. If possible, explain and help him to understand the cause of his fear. Perhaps a big noise was the sound of the train whistle as it came through the tunnel. If the child is afraid of thunder and lightning the parent should let him sit safely in his arms and watch the lightning and listen to the thunder while the parent talks to him reassuringly about it. Let the child talk about his fear if he wants to. Give him opportunities to act it out through play or through painting or drawing pictures. Do not try to hurry him to get over his fear. It will take patience and time to help him understand the cause and get over his intense feelings.
If the child is afraid because his mother and father have fears they have passed on to him, it is harder for him to get over them, since he does not have the calm reassurance and support of his parents to help him. If mother is afraid of dogs and pulls away when a dog approaches, naturally her child also will develop a fear of dogs. If a parent is afraid of thunder and lightning his child is more likely to be afraid too. If father or mother fears the water it will be harder for their child to enjoy it and to learn to swim. Parents who have fears should recognize them and try to work them off before they are passed on to their little children. As the children get older, parents can be honest, at least about their more obvious fears, and tell the children about them in a matter-of-fact and, if possible, humorous way. “I have a silly fear of snakes” can start the family off to discovering all sorts of interesting things about snakes — which ones are harmless and which ones should not be picked up. A parent will often find that the knowledge he discovers with his youngster helps him to lessen his own fear.
A child who is already unhappy, anxious, or afraid that his mother or father does not love him, or a little child who has been too strictly “trained,” may develop very real fears and react to situations which cause fear more intensely than will other children. Often these children become timid and will not try new experiences; they may cling to home and to mother or they may have nightmares or wet the bed. If the nightmares become very severe or very frequent, or if the fears result in sleepwalking, it may be wise for the parents to seek the help of a child psychiatrist or psychologist, to help them discover the real cause.
Sometimes fears come because the little child’s imagination is working overtime. A little child is meeting all sorts of new situations, hearing all sorts of new ideas. If he has older brothers and sisters and is exposed to overstimulating radio programs and movies, frightening fairy tales, or television programs that he cannot grasp, the vague fears about the world around him can crystallize into real fright. Most little children cannot distinguish between what is real and what is fantasy; that will come later. If a child sees a dragon on a television screen it is difficult for him to grasp the fact that this is not a real dragon. He may say, “But I saw him.” Care should be taken not to overstimulate small children just at the time when they are trying to find out about the real world around them. If the pre-school child is allowed to listen to the radio or to watch the television set, the programs must be carefully chosen. Fairy tales can come later, when the child is old enough to know that they are “just stories” to be enjoyed as such.
Whether a child’s fear is caused by a real experience, has been copied from his parents, or has developed in some other way, it can become more disturbing to a child who is already anxious or has a general feeling of insecurity or unhappiness. Things that do not frighten one child may make a less-secure child very much afraid. When fear is mixed with insecurity or unhappiness it is much more difficult to deal with. While giving such a child comfort and reassurance when he is afraid, his parents must also try to discover the deeper cause of his anxiety, insecurity, or unhappiness. They must also be willing to try to help the child gain more surety and confidence. Sometimes this means that they must be willing to change their own attitude toward him. It is again a question of trying to discover where the child’s unhappiness lies and where they have failed to meet his needs. Fear in a child is a signal that he needs extra love, affection, time, and understanding. (Continue below to page 2)