Children are afraid of all kinds of things. Many children are afraid of robbers or “bad people”. Your child may be worried about someone breaking into the house in the middle of the night. Or, maybe your child worries about walking to school by himself because he’s afraid of a “bad guy” getting him. These fears can impair not only your child’s life, but also your own as he seeks the safety and comfort of your presence.
If your child has a fear of robbers and “bad people”, consider the following tips:
Try Emotional Coaching
In emotional coaching, the parent names the feelings that his or her child might be experiencing. For example, a parent can say things like, “I know you’re worried about a robber breaking in.” or “I understand that you’re scared to walk to school by yourself because you’re afraid that a bad person might hurt you.” This simple acknowledgment of the child’s true feelings is the opposite of what most parents tend to do. The more common approach is called “discounting” – an attempt to reassure the child by minimizing the seriousness of his fear. For instance, a parent who is discounting might say something like, “Your imagination is too active; there is nothing to be afraid of.” Interestingly, discounting not only fails to reassure a child, but it actually increases fear over time. Most parents will notice that no matter how many times they tell the child NOT to worry, the child continues to worry. Emotional Coaching, on the other hand, has a greater chance of helping the child to release his upsetting emotions. Once the bad feeling is named by someone else, much of it melts away. Therefore, when the child hears the parent reflect back to him, “Yes, I understand that you are afraid,” the child becomes LESS afraid. The parent can then go on to explore what will make the child feel more comfortable. The conversation might sound like this, “I understand that you are afraid of robbers coming into your room. Since you still have to sleep in your room, tell us if there is anything that we can do to help you feel safer.”
Talk About Safety
It’s impossible to shield children from images and news of “bad guys.” Instead of throwing out the T.V., shutting down the computer, silencing the radio and hiding news publications, talk to your fearful child. Ask him to tell you what he is most afraid of (i.e. it might be a fear of being kidnapped or murdered, or being abandoned because a parent is kidnapped or murdered, or experiencing pain or some other fear completely). Use Emotional Coaching (naming his feelings) and Validating (acknowledging how the feelings makes sense). Then, give your child both information and anxiety reduction strategies (see below). Helpful information includes offering some sense of statistical probabilities of experiencing robbery or other crimes (which doesn’t cure fears, but can help reduce them). Other information you might share, depending on the age of your child, is how to dial 911 for emergency help, how to hide if necessary, how to reach a safe adult and even how to defend oneself. Rather than being frightening, this kind of information can help reduce feelings of helplessness and increase a sense of agency.
Use Bibliotherapy (read stories)
Ask your local librarian for suggestions for age-appropriate books and movies that highlight children’s abilities to courageously and creatively face challenges and solve problems. Reading about other children dealing with problems and facing challenges can help give your child self-confidence that he too will be able to deal with difficult circumstances. This is not to suggest that a child might be able to fend off a robber, but it can help your child to remember the safety steps you have taught him for emergency situations. Most importantly, it will help the child begin to develop a more POSITIVE imagination and a less vulnerable, helpless mindset. This can reduce the habit of conjuring up scary images of bad people and bad things happening. It can build a healthier feeling of being empowered and safe.
Be Careful Not to Reinforce Fears
Avoidance makes fears worse – don’t solve the problem by letting your child sleep in your room if he or she has already been sleeping in his or her own room. In addition, be careful not to show excessive interest in your child’s fears. Too much attention can accidentally reinforce the fear. The first time the child mentions the fear, give all the understanding and education that you can. After that, give mini-versions for review and, as time goes on, say less and less. After a while, you can say things like, “Remember what we talked about before. Good night. Have a good sleep.”
Teach Strategies to Cope with Fear
Show your child how to think positively. Teach him to imagine protectors, robber-stoppers, friendly lions, angels, and so forth. If you have taught him about God, then teach him to ask for protection and expect to receive it. Teach him or her to notice every day and night how he and everyone he cares for is still safe and alive. Let him realize that there is nothing to worry about.
Another helpful thing to do is to teach your child how to calm his or her nervous system with breathing techniques. This gives the child a way to soothe himself without needing you to be in the room. Used regularly, it can also prevent fearful thoughts from occurring in the first place. One good technique is to teach your child to pay attention to his or her breath, thinking the word “in” when breathing in and thinking the word “out” when breathing out. Help the child breathe this way with you for a few minutes and then instruct the child to continue to breathe like that on his or her own whenever the scary feeling arises. This method of breathing calms the nervous system and can even help the child to fall asleep. Another useful anxiety-taming strategy is EFT – Emotional Freedom Technique. This simple acupressure technique can make fears literally disappear. The internet is a rich resource for instruction on EFT and there are also many books available on the subject. Some therapists also use and teach EFT in their practices – you can search for one online. EFT takes only a few minutes to do and is so simple that a child can do it independently once instructed.
Experiment with Bach Flowers
Bach Flower Therapy is a harmless water-based naturopathic treatment that can ease emotional distress and even prevent it from occurring in the future. Bach Flower Remedies are excellent for the treatment of fears. Of the 38 remedies in the system, there are many that deal directly with different types of fear. The flower remedy Mimulus can help cure phobias, while the flower remedy Rock Rose can prevent feelings of panic. Walnut is the flower for those strongly affected by seeing or hearing about bad people doing things (i.e in the news and media). Bach Flowers are sold in health food stores around the world. You can mix several together in one treatment bottle. Fill a one-ounce Bach Mixing Bottle (an empty bottle with a glass dropper, sold wherever Bach Remedies are sold) with water. Add two drops of each remedy. Add one teaspoon of brandy. The bottle is now ready to use: place 4 drops in any liquid (juice, water, milk, tea, soup, etc.) 4 times each day: morning, mid-day, afternoon and evening. Remedies can be taken with or without food. Continue until the fear has dissipated. Treat again if the fear returns. Continue in this way, treating the fear when it is present and stopping treatment when it is not present, until it is simply gone.
If Fear Persists and Interferes with Sleep, Seek Professional Help
If you find that your child is still intensely fearful of robbers and bad people even after you have provided support and education, do consider accessing professional help. A child-psychologist may be able to treat your child’s fears in a few brief sessions.