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What to say (and not say) when your kids are afraid

Fear when left unchecked has the potential to shrink our world, but appropriate response and facing a fear can expand our experiences and life.


It doesn't need to be Halloween to broach the topic of fear. Children begin to grapple with fear very early on and it lasts into adulthood. Consider the last time you dealt with fear, maybe it was a major life transition or some other trek into the unknown?

Fear itself isn't necessarily a bad thing and can be quite adaptive. The problem occurs when fear becomes all consuming and causes you to avoid things that scare you. Here is the thing about fear: the more we feed it through avoidance, the worse it gets. We think we are keeping ourselves safe, but actually we're shrinking our world and experiences. For example, a person afraid of airplanes may avoid flying altogether and the fear gets worse the longer they don't fly. However, the fear shrinks if that person continues to fly and continues to safely arrive at their destination.

Fear can be an excellent barometer when there is a legitimate threat—it's what keeps us safe. But it's important not to fixate on fear so much that it minimizes your life, experiences and happiness. Learning this balance starts in childhood.

During Halloween, haunted houses, scary costumes and things that go "Boo!" can cause some fear in our kids. When taking part in the festivities, it is important to keep in mind what is developmentally appropriate for your child, and not expose them to things that may be too scary, or not appropriate for their age.  But activities that are appropriate can help your child conquer their fears. In those cases, here are some things we can say to guide them through the process.

Instead of saying "Don't be afraid" say "You are safe." As parents, it's important to acknowledge our child's feelings and allow them to experience it. It is rarely effective when we tell someone not to be afraid, but you can reassure your child that they are safe. Point out the present moment to ground them and encourage that safe feeling. Point out the sky, the trees, and the other children laughing and having fun. Let them take time for a few minutes to  recognize their safety..

Instead of "It's fake, you are too old to be afraid" say "You're so brave," and "We can do it together!" Saying a child is too old to be afraid can shame them. Remember, their feelings are valid and real and not necessarily guided by rational thinking. It is important to remind them that in life, it is ok to do things we are afraid of and that even adults will engage in activities when they are afraid, such as public speaking or undergoing a scary medical procedure. Acknowledge the fear, then work to move forward in an adaptive and life-enhancing way.

Instead of "if you do it, I'll give you______" say "I know you are scared and that's ok. I think if you try it you may see that it's not as scary as you think." Often times the stories in our head are a lot worse than the actual experience. Children will most likely realize this when the can actually experience an event. Be comforting in your approach and continue to remind them that they are safe. After they successfully overcome the fear, tell them you're proud and they should feel the same way, too. You can also talk about why they were so afraid and point out the differences in actual experience.

Appropriate risk taking is an essential life skill that starts in childhood. It is also important that we teach kids how to discern an appropriate threat from an inappropriate one. Fear when left unchecked has the potential to shrink our world, but appropriate response and facing a fear can expand our experiences and life.