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When Children Are Afraid

Helping children manage and learn from their fears.

Our nearly three-year-old daughter was walking a quiet beach in the Outer Banks when she suddenly froze. She had been watching a ‘sleeping’ (her word) crab that suddenly moved sideways. Not given to dramatics, she nevertheless began to cry, cowering behind my legs — "Scary crab, Daddy!" She was not to enter the water or step a toe onto the beach for the rest of that vacation and it cost her dearly, staying behind in the beach house while siblings and cousins flew kites and splashed in the waves — things she dearly loved.

Young children’s fears are more common than not, and have — and will continue to —confound parents for millennia. They often seem to come out of nowhere (see above) and can quickly gum up the works in the family. The emotions can be so raw, the reasons so remote, and the solutions so elusive. Parents typically try to be empathic and accommodate (leave her in the beach house with a volunteer instead of dragging her kicking and screaming onto the beach). But that often leads to cutting more and more ‘deals’ — not a family-soothing solution. To be clear, the fears are mostly quite real to the child, and they often are born in the rapid growth of his or her neurological pathways that connect cause and effect, reality and imagination, positive and negative feelings. So, what’s a parent to do when the tears and noise flow? Should they push or coddle their shy, fearful child?

The research on what helps temperamentally shy children may surprise. Parents who coddle have more comfortable children in the short run, but by the time they get to kindergarten, their children are more shy, not less. The parents who gently push, encouraging supportive exposure to other children and new places, have slightly more edgy offspring in the short term, but their kids are less shy and more social — therefore more successful — in kindergarten. These lessons can help parents of kids with more flexible or feisty temperaments manage their inevitable fear as wells.

  • It’s best to start with reassurance ("I’ll keep you safe and help you feel better") and a dash of empathy ("It scared you when the crab moved and you didn’t expect it–I don’t like that either"). First the hug, then the distraction ("Let’s find something to do that I know you love").
  • If the hug proves insufficient, switch to helping the child stay in the moment with you ("OK, let’s take three deep breaths together, each one bigger than the next"). If you find yourself repeatedly comforting and accommodating despite these short-term solutions ("I know you are scared of the school bus, so I’ll drive you again"), it may be time for a bigger plan.
  • Slowly and supportively, expose your child to the thing he or she fears (assuming you are not scared yourself). For our daughter, that meant visiting a familiar body of water when we got back home, despite some protest, re-entering her water world one toe at a time. Bravery trumps coddling when the goal of the lesson is mastery.

Dr. Kyle Pruett is a Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and Educational Advisory Board member for The Goddard School, an early childhood education franchise and leading preschool teaching learning through play (