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 in panic mode is more likely to be able to think clearly about solutions to a problem rather than running blindly away from it.

* Garner support from the other people involved. In this case, mom or dad should call the dentist and explain the situation. It's likely that dentists, doctors, teachers, or others with whom your child might be experiencing fear will have an opinion or potential solution that you might not have thought of. In the case of a hired professional (like a dentist) that is not sympathetic, however, remember that you pay them and get someone else.

* Schedule more time. When a child is likely to be fearful in a particular situation, it's better to schedule more time to handle it on the spot. Making a double appointment with your child's dentist or doctor, for example, might allow for some relationship-building between your child and this person and can make the difference between panic and relaxation.

* Take the time yourself to talk with your child. Regardless of our intentions, the reality of our lives is that we have very little spare time. Because we often feel rushed, we have a tendency to rush our children as well. Fear is not an emotion, however, that can be overcome quickly. It's important to take the time to sit down with your child and talk through fearful situations. As you do, remember that if your goal is to push your child towards a solution so that you get on with the other things you have to do, it's likely your "discussion" will backfire.

* Listen. I cannot stress how important this particular skill is in parenting. Listening means not interrupting, not trying to get your point across, not arguing, not judging, and not rushing. When you listen to your child's fears you may actually hear solutions present themselves as well. But if you're rushing towards the solutions, then you're not really listening. Fully exploring the fear with your child will help him feel supported by you, which may be just enough to get him through the fear producing situation.

* Encourage solutions. Asking your child for possible solutions instead of coming up with them yourself ensures that your child has ownership of the resolution to the problem. This means that he's more likely to be able to carry through with his plan.

* Provide boundaries. Children (and adults too) reach solutions more effectively within the confines of boundaries. In the case of a necessary appointment where your child will have to face his fear, a natural boundary is provided by the time restraints -- for example if the appointment is on a Wednesday, that day comes whether a solution has been reached or not. Working within those time restraints often encourages children to find solutions. Clearly, as the date approaches, it's important for you to spend more time in discussion with your child, and show more empathy for his fear.

* Take advantage of professionals. Finally, if your child really does seem to have a phobia (experiences nightmares, panic attacks, vomits or has other physical symptoms associated with an upcoming experience) it might be helpful to engage a child therapist to work short-term with your child to help him overcome his fear.