Helping children deal with fears
Sometimes tamariki around two years old experience fear and anxiety because there are lots of things they don't fully understand yet. Parents can help their tamariki by recognising and talking about feelings, and modelling staying calm.
Young tamariki are being exposed to many new experiences that they don't yet understand, this can sometimes be scary for them. They might seem afraid of insects, the dark, loud sounds, dogs, going to the doctor or new people. Or they might find new experiences scary at first, like toilet learning, getting a haircut, shifting house, death or relationship break-ups, or a new baby coming into the whānau.
It's normal for them to be cautious, and usually their fears about these 'new' things and experience lessen as their understanding grows and they feel more secure in their world.
Adults often approach new situations and environments cautiously too, and also have fears, such as of spiders, moths, mice and open or small spaces. Our fears can seem irrational to another adult, but feel very real to us, and this is no different for young tamariki.
In fact having some fear and coming at things cautiously is a good thing! It's a natural reaction to help us avoid danger and to keep us safe. However, too much anxiety or fear can can stop us trying new things or experiences. So, it's important to support tamariki with managing and working through the times when they're scared or fearful.
Ways whānau can help
Talking and empathising:
- Be aware of your own fears, and how you react when you get a fright. Tamariki will watch their closest whānau to see how to react, or for guidance and reassurance. It's important to model this.
- Acknowledge their fears but try not to over-reassure them. While it helps them to know that people understand how they’re feeling, tamariki will believe that the 'thing or experience' should be continued to be feared, if we over-reassure them. It's okay to say "That dog barking gave you a fright, hey? The dog is over there behind that fence, we're safe here." Provide love and warmth to support them – a cuddle or hold their hand.
- Tell the truth – if the child is scared because they remember what happened last time (for example, when they were immunised), remind them the sting only lasted a short time. Talk about how brave they were and something enjoyable you can do together afterwards.
- Don’t tease or shame them, or tell them not to be stupid.
- Encourage tamariki to kōrero about their feelings "You seem really proud about your artwork" or "That's a really happy face in the picture, hey?" This supports them to be able to express themselves.
Preparing for and responding to situations:
- Take opportunities to prepare tamariki for new experiences.
- If they've had a fearful reaction to something in the past, (like spiders, bees or dogs barking) it can help when they experience this again, if whānau remain calm and provide awhi to support them.
- Allow them to use their comfort object, if they have one, when facing new or worrying situations.
- Support them by saying something like, "You look a bit scared of that dog. Shall I hold your hand while he goes past?" You might also talk about why dogs bark and friendly dogs you've known. This will help them recognise that not all dogs are scary and support them to overcome their generalised fear.
Whānau should always stay with their child during visits to professionals, to provide reassurance and support, and model how to behave and remain calm. This will also show them that their parents think the check-up or procedure is important.
Some older siblings (and even some adults) might find it funny to scare younger tamariki. For this reason, tamariki need whānau to intervene, and kōrero as a family about whether something is fun for everyone.
Try an activity
Take on roles and use props to help children work through things that might be scary or troubling for them.
Helping tamariki overcome fears
Books are a great way to talk with tamariki about things they might be scared of. For example, before going to the doctor, parents could share a picture book about it with their child. There are also books available that explore and describe emotions and feelings. These can be helpful to normalise their feelings, and support good strategies to help.
Pretend play can help tamariki get an idea of what is likely to happen and think about or practise how they might manage. Act out going to the doctor (or what's worrying them) using their teddies or other characters or play doctors. This can really support them to be less fearful.
Show them that something they’re afraid of is actually okay. For example, if a child gets frightened by the water going down the plughole in the bath, show what's happening while they're out of the bath. Explore solid objects, like a toy are too big to go down, just like them, and maybe that the sucking noise sounds like a slurpy drink through a straw. Kōrero about how brave they're being or how calm and relaxed they seem now. Acknowledge their humour too.
If appropriate, kōrero about things they can remember that made them, or another child, feel scared. Talk about how they felt and what they did to manage it.
Helpful resources for whānau
Ideas for helping a child overcome fears
An article from wikiHow with ideas for helping a child overcome fears.