Fearful Kids

PSP members share how they managed their anxious and fearful children.

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As one PSP Member writes:

"My son is turning 6 in November, entering 1st grade. We have always known him to be fearful and cautious. He is finally ok going in the pool where he can stand but is resistant to learning how to really swim. There are moments were my husband is able to talk him through something - like carrying him into the ocean-- and once situated he seems ok. But often, his fears can turn down right debilitating and paralyzing.
Last night my husband was tucking him into bed and talking about going to the beach house later this month and he said he wouldn't be going in- the ocean or the pool. It got to the point in the conversation were he started crying-- potentially overwhelmed by feelings of fear? He is terrified of many amusement park rides that are too fast or have scary parts. He is afraid to watch most movies, especially where the bad guy is really prominent.
While I have been going along with his fears, trying to comfort him to get him to move past them, thinking they were age appropriate, I'm wondering at what point should we step in and perhaps get someone to talk to him (child psychologist). Is this jumping the gun? On the other hand, I can tell that this will likely be a part of his personality and would think trying to nip it in the bud might prove helpful.
He is also the type of kid that gives up easily and has no desire to try hard at something that doesn't just come easy. Parts of me thinking its laziness and parts of me think it's a fear of failure. I think it's all connected. So many layers to this onion and was curious if anyone had a similar experience and turned to a psychologist- and if that helped. Thank you for any words of wisdom.




Find a skillset to manage fears with your child:

"This is such a hard question because so many kids are shy and scared of certain things, so it is hard to know when it is time to reach out for help. Our four year daughter was petrified of water, as in full on hysterical crying if we even got close to a pool. In just in the past few months we started to make progress and she finally started to have fun with it. She still refuses to put her face in the water in the bathtub. I think turning 6 and going into first grade is a good time to consult with someone. I certainly would have if my daughter's fears had extended much past this year and I will if by this time next year she is still refusing to put her face in the water. It makes sense to see someone even if they say come back in a year if nothing has changed. Our daughter is really afraid of movies too. She is not able to watch all of Frozen for instance. She is still young, but at some point I hope that will change. I think the most important thing is to not make them feel like they are bad or wrong because of these fears, but it sounds like you guys aren't in any danger of that. Consulting with someone doesn't mean that you are saying what they are feeling is wrong. I think it is just helping them get tools to manage their fears."


Explore sensory issues:

"Has your child been evaluated for sensory issues? My son has some sensory issues and things like climbing playground ladders that seem very simple and easy to other kids, were terrifying for him. It took years for him to learn to swim but now he loves it. You might consider looking into an evaluation."


Reframe the "problem":

"This child is cautious, and careful.  Likes to think tings through.  very sensible.  He will in all likelihood take to swimming when it feels right for him, not when someone else pushes him.  He likes to be thoughtful and take his time.  These are wonderful qualities.  Shows great independence. I wouldn't see it all as negative, at all.  Re-frame it.
Our son had some of the same issues - would only ride on the bench on the carousel, never ride on the horses. Wouldn't go in the sea on his own. Now he's decided himself that swimming is cool (after some swim lessons at the Y), and he elected to go on a horse last time we were at the carousel.   He enjoyed it. He never does dumb things like run into the street, or take crazy risks in the playground.  I think if I'd pushed him he probably would've taken a lot longer to overcome his trepidation.  I respect his choices, but encourage him gently to take the plunge when he feels ready.
We each venture into life at our own pace and in our own way.  Let's not over-protect our kids nor push them into doing things they think are dangerous.
Trust him.
R.D. Laing's one son didn't read at the age of 16.  The school psychologists said they could "help him".  Ronnie Laing said no thanks.  That summer, the boy got into some video game that required him to read certain things.  Suddenly, he began reading and soon was an avid reader!"


Find a creative method to alleviate from the problem:

"I so feel your struggle!  I don't have a lot of suggestions, but I have found one thing that has helped my 3 year old with her fears. In general, she's pretty adventurous, so she's not the same challenge you describe.  However, she started being afraid of monsters and dogs, and at night would be afraid to go to bed, and would worry that the monsters and dogs would "get her."  I found this suggestion online and it helped...
I bought a cheap spray bottle and decorated it.  I filled it with water and some lavender oil (which I had on hand, but I think anything that smells would work, like vanilla).  As part of her bedtime routine, I spray the "Monster Spray" on her door and on the door knobs, creating a "protection" - the monsters and dogs don't like the smell, you see.  I also made up a song to the tune of ABCs that tells the monsters to stay away. I now sing and spray every night, and sometimes she'll spray while I sing.
I think this does two things - it gives her a sense of safety in her own room, and a sense of control - she sprays to keep the monsters out.  In her mind, the monsters are real, and there is no point it trying to tell her otherwise.  (And dogs can be, of course scary.)  I also do what you do when she's afraid of shadows - I find that works when she's awake and thinking. In the middle of the night, or when she's upset, it doesn't.
My cousin, who has a lot of exp with child development, continually reminds me that at this age they are simply NOT rational creatures.  They are emotional ones.  I find when I play to that, things are easier.  I think that this is NOT coddling, but meeting them where they are.  I think they get more courage with support, not shame.
Also, I was a VERY timid and unchallenged child, and so I relate to your husband.  IMVHO, pushing won't help.  I think you're doing all the right things - presenting doable and achievable challenges, letting him set his own pace, and demonstrating that you are not afraid.  When my dad tried to push me (through love or through shame, he tried both) I just got more entrenched and scared.
Anyway, I guess what I really wanted to say was that I really support your approach, and wanted to normalize what you're going through."


Praise his/her prudence:

"My son has also always been fearful/cautious and it was hard for me, fearless crazy adult, to tune in with him. But I learned that praising his prudence was actually the key to make him question and challenge his fears.
The excessive behaviors and attitudes that children display when they are young turn out to be (evolved) their personal characteristics as adults, so you shouldn't try to change anything and just walk the path of life with them, see how they evolve, and what they do with their lives. It's fascinating!"


Accept that your child is anxious and let them know you recognize their fears:

"I feel I could have written this exact email two years ago. My son, almost 6, was just like yours - and in some ways, still is. Here's a partial list of things he won't do: swim, go in sprinklers at playground, put 3D glasses on for a 3D film, try any new food, let anyone sing "happy birthday" to him, use the bathroom anywhere but home, etc.
I can't tell you how many times someone has asked me, "Why won't he let me take his picture?" "Why doesn't he like pizza?", and so on. He's almost always terrified of trying new things. So yes, I feel your frustration. Deeply.
One of the hardest things to accept about our son is that he's just an anxious kid. It's part of his make-up and will always be a part of him. We are now teaching him and ourselves how to deal with his anxiety. I don't know if this applies to your son, but it sounds like a possibility.
Around your son's age, when ours was extremely resistant to potty-training, we started taking him to child therapists and GI doctors. Let me save you some time - if you are interested in the therapy route, go straight to the NYU Child Study Center. They are well-educated and highly skilled at treating child anxiety. It can be expensive, but they have different payment plans.
My husband and I also had similar "discussions" about pushing him vs. coddling him. I think there is a productive method of talking to your child which is neither. What we've learned is that it is very important that children first and foremost just feel heard. So when my son tells me he doesn't want to do something, I say, "I understand. You don't want to do X" and then I will explain why X will be okay. When he continues to say he doesn't want to do X, I repeat what he said and then say something along the lines of, "I know you don't want to do X and I have explained why it's okay, and we are not going to talk about it any more" and then I change the subject or try to distract him. When he continues to bring it up, I say, "We're not talking about that any more" and just continue on normally. It helps to remain very calm. If your child feels like you will make exceptions for him if he's really upset, he will always try to push for that exception.
And all this leads to the fact that sometimes you will have to put your child in situations that are extremely uncomfortable for him. If he survives, which surely he will, it will get easier for him each time. We call this "riding the wave" (a kinda cheesy term we learned in therapy, but very effective in helping him visualize his fear and recovery). The more he learns that he can live through the things he's afraid of, the easier things get. I see my son, as his comprehension and self-awareness grows, moving past some of his anxieties."


It takes time:

"My son and daughter both were very fearful and hesitant of lots of things.  Merry go rounds, water, old people (my poor grandma!) dark theaters (my son loves Laurie Berkner and spent all of one concert with his head buried in my husband's lap saying he wanted to go home), bees, grass, butterflies, parts of the playground, the 'desert' at Botanical Garden. He is 4 and 4 months and we've recently had a few breakthroughs. He went on a carousel (non moving horse griping onto me like crazy, but he said he liked it). He splashed in the water at the beach yesterday (after two days of playing in hot sand). And he gave my 98 year old grandma a hug last time he saw her. I had both kids be still and watch bees gathering nectar to prove that they just want to do their job, and the kids both feel more comfortable around bees. They both were afraid of cats and dogs, which is better since my brother got a dog and cat. For us it has just taken time. My daughter from infancy screamed anywhere near the water. Now she is the model student in her swim class and helps the others who are scared. I was very tempted to push them both, but I'm glad I didn't. They now trust me when I tell them something isn't scary, and they feel proud when they push beyond their limits. My son likes the intrepid museum because he loves planes and now he says that he thinks he is intrepid. I'm really glad I didn't make either of them feel as if there was a problem being hesitant or labeling themselves that way. In fact I'm happy to have kids who look before they leap. I have friends with kids with no hesitation, and as a parent a little caution is okay..  We now encourage my daughter to take risks--she does archery and ropes courses, she goes crashing into waves, they both scoot faster than I'd like and they both are starting to ride bikes.  There is plenty of time to push. I hope your son has some breakthroughs soon"


Recommended Reading (Find these books at the Brooklyn Public Library or at your community bookstore!):

"Read this article, Helping Children Conquer Their Fears, about helping your child release fear. Basically there are ways to play and listen to your child that will help them get over their fears."

"I highly recommend the book "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking". The book describes extensively the science behind sensitive types, which is linked to individuals that demonstrate cautious and fearful actions. I learned so much reading it, and it directly addresses children's personalities and experiences."

"It may be worth it to pick up Carol Dweck's book Growth Mindset. This is a powerful book and theory used in progressive classrooms across the country. But it's applicable to parents too - I recommended it to my brother years ago after reading a bed time story to his 4 year old who started to cry hysterically because she couldn't read the words on the page. I jumped on that to try and address her fear of failing and tendency to give up as fast as possible."

 "I highly recommend the series of "What To Do" books for kids by Dawn Heubner. There's one called "What to Do When You Worry Too Much" that would work well for this situation. All of the books are very accessible to young children."

"This made me think about some kids being more sensitive than others, and therefore being more cautious, etc.  I really like the book The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron.  It is written more for adults to read (about themselves), but I think it is worth a look to see if you think this description might fit your son (there is a quiz at the beginning of the book) and if so, there would be a lot of insight into what might be going on and how to help him navigate the world in a way that is more compatible with who he is."

The same author, Elaine Aron, wrote also The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive when the World Overwhelms Them. Very insightful."