Fear, the Stages and How to Navigate It

Fear, like other emotions, is a natural part of life. From toddler to teenager, children can experience many and varied fears throughout their growing years. Parents, grandparents, carers and teachers have an important role to play in supporting children to understand and overcome their fears. This helps them navigate life’s “scary” situations safely.

Toddlers

Every child is different. Some toddlers have no trouble leaving their parents, as they run with joy into their day care or pre-school centre – without looking back – much to the sadness of the parent left standing at the door longing for a hug goodbye. Looking on with envy are the parents of toddlers who experience great fear when it comes to separation. They try to prise loose the little arms wrapped around their neck with the strength of a boa constrictor!

New experiences and transitions can be scary at any stage of life whether. This includes starting pre-school, the first day at primary school, high school, university or even the first day at work. So how can we support toddlers to make that all important first transition to pre-school?

  • Make the unknown more familiar with visits to pre-school together.
  • Identify the children, activities and toys that your child was naturally drawn to so you can remind your child about great aspects of pre-school.
  • Talk to your child about how drop off and pick up times will work and the fun they will have during the day.

At home, role-play a typical pre-school day by using your child’s toys to help make the experience more familiar.

  • For example: create a pretend pre-school and show your toddler how Mummy or Daddy Bear drops little Teddy off at pre-school. Teddy has a great day at pre-school playing with other toys and doing activities with the teachers. Allow the child to enjoy some morning tea with Teddy at pretend pre-school, sit with Teddy and the other toys to listen to a story being read by the teacher. Then Mummy or Daddy Bear comes to pick up Teddy to go home – just like you will pick them up! Teddy has had a great day and tells his Mummy and Daddy all about it. Allow your child to experience this role-play a few times. Each time inviting your child to become more involved in the process – “What else could you and Teddy do now at pre-school? It’s lunch time, what happens now?

Make the time to talk to your child about going to pre-school just like Teddy did. Invite your child to explain how they feel about going to pre-school and alleviate any worries they might have.

  • Most importantly when it comes to the day for the real drop off, try and stay as calm as possible. Your children will pick up on your fear and make saying goodbye harder.
  • With a little practice and patience – your toddler will be running into pre-school without a care or a fear. Instead they’ll have a sense of joy and adventure!

Young Children

When you were young, do you remember being afraid of the dark? Were you worried that there were monsters in your room, in the cupboard and under the bed? Many children experience fear of the dark. Here are steps to support our children to overcome their fears and worries about the dark:

  1. When your child is upset and worried about the dark, start by slowing everything down to help your child find calm. Slow your voice and breathing down. Say reassuring words like “you’re safe”, and “I’m here”, and “we’ll work this out together” and offer a hug. Help your child take slow, deep, breaths. Invite them to feel their feet on the ground to be more present. Most of all be patient… it takes time to calm down.

  2. Once the child is calm, explore the fear. You can talk about it and even draw the worry. Explain to your child that together you can find solutions to overcome the fear. No time to solve the issue? Why not put the worry or the fear in a “worry box” for later and once the fear is dealt with put the fear in the bin!

  3. Help your child uncover their negative thoughts that cause fear, worry or anxiety and replace them with positive thoughts.

  4. Sometimes children are too fearful to try. Explore where your child has overcome a fear or obstacle in the past successfully by trying it. For example, going to pre-school, staying at a friend’s house overnight or sleeping in their bed without the light on. Try the activity for short periods of time and make them longer over time as the child’s fears reduce.

Teens

As we all know, teenagers can be fearless, reckless and engage in many risk-taking behaviours during the adolescent years. In fact, the teenage years are the most dangerous period in life for accidents, injury and death. And, these tend to be the result of the teen’s own actions. Teen’s brains are wired for fearlessness and risk-taking, but one thing that can inspire fear and worry in teens is the need for peer approval. In fact, the need to belong and the fear of being excluded from the group is so great that it can lead to teens to engaging in risky, irresponsible and dangerous behaviours – just to be part of the group. To a teenager, acceptance by their peers can be paramount!

How can parents help their teenagers to be safe and to make good decisions instead of making poor decisions based on the fear of be excluded by their peers?

  1. Know who your teens friends are. Your teen’s peer group can be a positive or negative influence in your teen’s life.
  2. Research shows that teens tend to get up to risky behaviours between the hours of 3pm and 6pm when parents are at work. So, have teens engaging in safe activities – like after school sport.
  3. Help your teen to understand how their fear of not being part of the “group” could drive them to take risks that can have serious negative long-term consequences. The risks can include drinking, drugs, sex and crime. 
  4. Help your teen to overcome their fear of peer rejection and making good decisions by exploring who their friends are, their fears of being excluded or ridiculed by their peers, and understanding that true friends want to keep everyone safe – not put themselves or others at risk.

Professional Help

Children will experience a range of fears throughout their lives. If your efforts to help your child overcome their fears do not seem to be working and your child is experiencing persistent or worsening fears that are hindering their wellbeing, consider seeking professional help. You can start by seeing your local doctor or paediatrician to get the support you and your child need.

Additional Resources

Beyond Blue Article: Strategies to Support Anxious Children. Be Brave Program: The BRAVE Program is a FREE interactive, online program for the prevention and treatment of childhood and adolescent anxiety. Support for children and teenagers to better cope with their worries. There are also programs for parents. 


 

Dr Rosina McAlpine is the CEO and creator of the Win Win Parenting program. Win Win Parenting practical and fun programs are delivered across a variety of organisations including early learning, school, corporate and government organisations in Australia, New Zealand and The United States. Dr Rosina is an internationally recognised award-winning researcher and educator.