‘Tis the season. With Halloween rapidly approaching the appearance of ghosts, goblins, witches, and werewolves pervades the senses. Images of these scary figures are everywhere from the grocery store to TV and even in the classroom. For adults, this is all in good fun. For children, however, the idea of all of these scary specters can be terrifying. For children who have a tendency toward anxieties and fears, it can quickly overtake a child’s imagination, interfering with sleep and their ability to cope away from their parents. This blog, a continuation of our discussion about anxiety disorders will focus on helping parents manage fears and anxieties in their children.
Here are some simple steps to manage smaller anxieties in children:
Help your child articulate how the fear began. For example, if your child is suddenly scared of ghosts and can’t sleep at night because he is afraid a ghost will get him, ask him. What have you heard about ghosts? What do ghosts do? Chances are you child has all sorts of confusing information from their friends, their siblings or even a storybook. This will at least help you understand what you are up against and will give you some clues about what is so frightening to your child. Most parents will first try to explan that these things really do not exist. They are just make believe or pretend. Unfortunately, in my experience, because of children’s tendency to use magical thinking, this plan does not usually work well with most children.
Have your child draw about it or make the scary figure out of clay.
This step is designed to help children further articulate the issue. You will often get much more information about your child’s fear from their drawing and their explanation about the drawing. To the extent you can, correct any misconceptions.
Use your child’s magical thinking to help resolve the problem
Ask your child what they think could defeat the scary figure (the ghost, goblin, witch, etc.) Then ask them to draw about that. Ask them what else they think would help and to the extent possible help them do those things for a period of time until the fear abates. For example, if your child thinks that ghosts are afraid of the night lights, allow them to have a night light for a period of time.
Help your child use relaxation techniques to decrease their anxiety. Most of these involve having your child take deep breaths that brings air into their diaphragm. For younger children I use the following exercises.
Nearly all of the issues that are true of adult anxiety are true for children but the presentation can look a bit different. (The previous newsletter can be viewed here.)
1) Bubbles. Get a small jar of bubbles and see if she can blow the biggest bubble she can. Tell her the trick is to take a deep breath in and blow it out slowly and carefully. Oooh and Ahhh over her great accomplishments.
2) The Marker Blowing Game. Get a marker that is completely symmetrical and can roll across a table easily. Put two of them on a table so that the long side is pointed toward you and your daughter (who are standing side-by-side). Tell her to take a really, really deep breath in and then blow out slowly to see how far she can make the marker go. You get to blow your marker too.
3) The Tummy Elevator. When she is laying down, put a loved stuffed animal on her tummy. The game is to see if she can breath in deeply enough to get her stuffed animal to go up and stay up until the animal counts to three. Then as she blows out the air, her stuffed animal gets a ride down the Tummy Elevator. You should do it too. Before you know it, you will be giggling and having fun.
Read or tell stories that contradict the child’s fears.
For example, if a child is afraid of ghosts, telling stories about a nice ghost or a silly ghost that can be a friend to children may help your child have another point of view and can take the place of the frightening images.
If the fears persist, seek professional help.
Just like with adults, if anxiety is not dealt with it can grow to unmanageable proportions.
If you have any further questions, please feel free to comment or ask the question with our Ask A Psychologist feature.