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When Children's Fears Are Real

Almost every child has had fears that relate to scary creatures -- monsters under the bed, "things" lurking in the dark, imagined goblins or ghouls or things that go bump in the night. And almost every child has had fears that could be true, but aren't -- like what happens if mommy leaves but doesn't come back?

The "prescription" in such cases pretty much boils down to the same thing -- patting them, reassuring them and making them go to bed anyway, or leaving the house in spite of the howling, knowing that they're safe and that you will, indeed, be coming back.

But what happens when your child's fear is based on a real-life experience? And it's a situation your child must face again. (I'm not referring to situations where a child experiences a one-time trauma, like a robbery or assault. Those situations call for the help of trained professionals to deal with the aftermath.) Rather, I'm referring to the more common experiences that our children may feel traumatized by -- like having a bad experience at the doctor or the dentist -- where they must face and overcome their fear because in the course of life they will have to visit the doctor or dentist again.

Let's take a look at a situation involving an 11 year old boy, Charles. When Charles was 9, he had a loose tooth. At a regular check-up, the dentist noticed and pulled it without telling Charles ahead of time. Since then, Charles refuses to open his mouth if taken to the dentist, and won't even allow a relatively non-invasive procedure like x-rays to be taken. Now he has a tooth that must be extracted because an adult tooth is growing in behind it. Although it might be tempting for some parents to adopt a "get over it" attitude and attempt to force Charles to cooperate, that type of strategy is rarely effective with an 11 year old (they're stronger than they were at two!) and certainly isn't going to serve to build Charles' courage for future situations. So what can loving parents do -- not only to help Charles face his immediate fear, but also to build his confidence for the future? Here are a couple of strategies that, when used together, often make the difference between a child feeling a little fearful or developing a full-blown phobia:

* Acknowledge and respect your child's temperament. Every child is different. Each child is unique. For some children the above situation would present only the slightest of problems, and you'd be able to "talk them out of" their fear. But for others, like Charles, this represents a truly traumatic event. If you can adjust your attitude and acknowledge the magnitude of your child's fear (even if you don't truly understand it) that adjustment will help your child feel as though you're his advocate. This is a critical position to take, since your child is less likely to feel panicky if he knows you're on his side and working in his best interests. A child who isn't