When Angels Fear to Tread

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Parent Library

Even newborns show the capacity to feel fear; They typically react strongly to loud noises or sudden changes in height. These early responses gradually develop into more mature fearfulness that appears during the first year as fear of strangers. Many children develop other fears during the early years, most of which pass without scars as their understanding of the world and their skill in coping with it develops. As we strive to develop children's self assurance, it is helpful to keep in mind that some fears are quite reasonable, some are clearly irrational, and most fears probably lie somewhere in between.

All within Reason

If you are very small, it makes good sense to be fearful of large dogs, dark places, and strange noises. Even a place the child knows well loses familiar reassuring cues in the dark. It is reasonable for a child without experience with old or handicapped people to recoil fearfully from them at first. It is not unreasonable for a young child to be fearful of doctors and nurses whose treatments are often intrusive, unpleasant, and even painful.

In such cases of reasonable fears, the emphasis should be on helping children cope with them. for example, a child can be taught to stand still and let a strange dog become acquainted with her, rather than to run from it. In anticipation of a visit to the doctor, a parent can remind the child of the last occasion when the discomfort was very brief and soon forgotten, as it will be this time, too. Offering a bribe or denying the unpleasantness does not help develop the courage that comes from facing up to reality.

Some children develop fears of illness or handicaps. In such cases, since you cannot guarantee that these difficulties will never occur, it is useful to reassure the child that, though these problems are unlikely to occur, you would always be at his side and would take care of his needs.

Fear of Loss

Occasionally, under the pressures of time and daily hassles, a parent threatens to leave the supermarket without her slow moving child if she doesn't hurry up. Most children recognize this as an empty threat; but for some, there is always a certain amount of residual doubt, and some fear of separation, loss, or abandonment may develop. It is likely that children who openly express these fears are less troubled by them than children who keep these fears to themselves. Again, the best response to such fears is to acknowledge and accept them-without implying that you agree with the child's views-and to offer a degree of reassurance.

"You're Being Unreasonable"

In the case of fears that have no basis in reality, fears of invisible monsters, ghosts, or evil visitors from outer space, the emphasis should be on dispelling them. To make fun or to ridicule these fears, or simply dismiss them as silly, is unlikely to help a child develop confidence in his own capacity to cope with life's uncertainties. Sometimes the fears develop from excessive television watching that can be monitored and reduced. Even some bedtime stories set imaginative children off to bad dreams occasionally. Sometimes these fears are prompted by a child's wish to establish that his parents are strong enough to protect him from unforeseen dangers. In such cases, the best response is to reassure the child that even if there were such things as monsters-indicating that you are sure there really aren't-you would know what to do and be able to protect him.

A Bid for Attention

Sometimes children use these fears as a pretext for gaining attention and comfort they believe (rightly or wrongly) they cannot get in other ways. In such cases, spending more time in close and comfortable activities, especially before bedtime, is more helpful than rational explanations of the unlikelihood of visits from space monsters. A parent's confident approach to these matters is one of the best ways to strengthen a child's own confidence.

Credits: Lilian G. Katz

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