My daughter, nine, hates needles. A recent trip to the dentist, after I spied a black spot on one of her teeth, inspired great anguish. "I don't want needles in my gums," she yelled in terror, before clamping both hands over her mouth.
She's never had so much as a filling, but a hospital blood test and the sight of her sister writhing in a dentist's chair was enough to cement her dread. When it comes to childhood fears, suggestion is as powerful as fact. On the day, however, the decay was found to be in a wobbly tooth and a disastrous date with anaesthetic was averted.
Oddly, my daughter's tears had given way to calm well before the dentist shared the good news. Later, my daughter explained that she'd felt fine: "There's no point in being afraid of something that hasn't happened," she said.
As is often the case in my experience of parenting, my daughter had managed to surprise and somewhat humble me by being a brave, wise soul. There are times when fear gains the upper hand, though, and it's normal for children to be prone to a number of fears as they grow.
Separation anxiety, a fear of strangers and loud noises affect babies and toddlers; the prospect of loved ones dying, being left alone at home and being unpopular at school occupies preteens; and teenage years are full of scary real-life news, a fear of missing out (exacerbated by social media), not fitting in, and failure as exams loom. But whatever their fears, there are strategies that will help them cope.
Moderate your own responses
Shrieking and running from the bathroom at the sight of a spider or anxiously frogmarching your kids past a harmless dog are almost guaranteed to make young children question whether the everyday is a source of potential danger. I have to be particularly careful on planes not to communicate my fear of flying; luckily, my daughters have yet call me out for my rictus grin or the crazy way I "hold" their hands during take-off.
Share your own fears
US author and clinical psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore advises parents to model bravery: show them that being brave isn't about being fearless, she writes on pbs.org, but "doing something even though we are scared … Feeling scared is often a sign that kids are doing something new or challenging. If they wait until they don't feel scared before they start, they may never get there." As ever, spending time listening to your children, talking through their day-to-day experiences, and being able to recognise and discuss their fears are critical elements in this process.
Go back to basics
Research published in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience in February found that socially anxious children between the ages of eight and 10 could be reassured that their environment was safe by a brief touch on the shoulder by a parent. In the same way, giving a fearful child a hug can be enough to reassure them that everything is OK, but avoid the temptation to smother them; much like a mother rushing to a child who has fallen can precipitate tears, a barrage of hugs can convince children that there really is something to worry about.
Let them see there’s nothing to fear
My daughter used to avoid the playground zip wire after she went on one and landed badly, breaking an arm. Months later, she saw her sister flying past and decided to join in. "She was having so much fun, I thought it wasn't very likely that I'd break my arm twice from a zip wire so I had another go. I'm not scared now," she told me. The same rationale worked wonders on stage fright, when the sight of her peers up on stage convinced her to audition for a school play. Simply avoiding something we fear means missing out on the realisation that the worst-case scenario seldom happens.
Know your fears
Our first response to a real or imagined danger is a physiological one, which can quickly overwhelm our minds. Stress hormones flood the body, our blood pressure and heart rate rise, and our breathing quickens as the body prepares for a fight or flight scenario. For children, as well as adults, this sudden physical onslaught is overwhelming and can reinforce anxieties about thunder, for example, for the next dark and stormy night. It's possible for the cognitive brain to switch off our emotional and physical responses to threats by either making a judgment that there's no imminent harm or by putting the fear into context. Giving children relevant information to arm their minds is a great way to limit the ability of fear to take hold, preventing a pattern of behaviour from taking shape.