Helping Your Kids Overcome Fear and Anxiety

'It’s critical to communicate the facts to children in a truthful but positive way,' writes Mordechai Rothman

All children experience fear or anxiety at some point in their young lives, whether they’re afraid of the dark, heights or flying, or anxious about a particular situation. Although there’s nothing you can do to prevent childhood fears and anxieties, there are two specific tactics you can use to help kids overcome these challenges: conditioning and information-sharing.

No matter how insignificant your child’s fears and anxieties may seem to you, it’s important to recognize that they are very real to your child and will undoubtedly affect his behaviour. The sooner you address the issue, the better. But how do you do that?

The first step is to validate your child’s feelings in order to gain his trust. Then slowly, over time, work to help him face his fears and anxieties through the process of conditioning — a proven way to acclimatize someone to different situations and train them to behave in certain ways.

If your child is afraid of the dark, leave his bedroom door wide open at bedtime for a few nights and gradually close the door a little more each night. Even if there is resistance, it’s critical to stay the course and not to give up until he gets accustomed to the dark.

Similarly, if your child is afraid of slides, get her more comfortable by having her touch the slide and watch other kids slide down. At home, create a slide out of Play-Doh together and have your child send small toys down for a ride.

Once conditioning is used to help children feel more comfortable in a particular situation, information-sharing is the next step to help increase their understanding of the reality and reduce their fears or anxieties. It’s important to give kids as much information as possible in a way they can understand it, and the internet is an excellent go-to resource for this purpose.

At Chai Lifeline Canada, we spend a fair amount of time helping scared and worried children understand and cope with a serious illness they’re experiencing. We often suggest to families to turn to YouTube videos for help with addressing their children’s fears and anxieties, including how to tell a child about a particular illness they’ve been diagnosed with, in a simple yet effective way.

After recommending conditioning methods — for instance, alleviating a child’s anxiety about getting a needle by spending time with her beforehand to practise giving shots to a doll — we recommend parents openly discuss the illness with their children and provide them with “tag-line” answers to help alleviate anxiety in social situations. A child who has lost her hair to cancer, for example, may be taught to say, “My hair fell out because of my medicine, but it will grow back.”

These methods for dealing with kids’ fears and anxieties are proven, whether used to address serious, life-altering situations or minor childhood phobias. Whatever the situation, it’s critical to communicate the facts to children in a truthful but positive way. It may take time, but, ultimately, it will be easier for children to come to terms with their reality and cope more effectively.

Mordechai Rothman is executive director of North York-based Chai Lifeline Canada, a charity that helps support families of children who suffer from life-threatening or lifelong illnesses. The organization provides dozens of free initiatives to help give children stability and their families a sense of normalcy, including counselling, tutoring for children missing extended periods of school, family retreats, sibling programs similar to that of Big Brother Big Sister, and summer camps for kids.

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