Has this happened to you? “But, noooooo! I can’t do it! Noooooo!!” Little feet start stomping. Fists clenched. And the tears begin to roll down her cheeks. “Noooo!! Hang on to me!!! I can’t do it by myself!” My friend shoots me that – ok, what-do-I-do-now-look – as her toddler is on the verge of a full-blown meltdown. We’re at the park. Her daughter wanted to jump across the elevated concrete mushrooms, like the other kids. There was one problem. She had to balance by herself, and she was afraid. Little ones usually communicate their fears in this way. Most are too young to be able to verbalize the feeling. Even when she can, a gap in her skill set, combined with overwhelming emotion causes a meltdown. Or at least avoidance. It’s tough when you see your kiddo paralyzed or stuck, trying to avoid what’s causing them worry. So, what can you do to help? How can your anxious child overcome fears?
Try these 7 strategies to help your child overcome fear:
- Validate her emotions.
- Understand how avoidance works.
- Understand your role as a parent when your child is anxious.
- Model the desired behavior.
- Practice with small steps.
- Draw attention to brave behavior.
- Seek help from a mental health professional if you don’t see progress.
1. Validate her emotion.
As with many parenting strategies, start with understanding and validation. Put yourself in your anxious child’s shoes. Try to imagine what it feels like when she’s afraid. Think of a possible explanation for her fear. It doesn’t have to be right. You don’t have to agree with it. Look for a piece of your child’s fear that you can identify with. You are going to tell her you understand why she is nervous. It will help her know her feelings are ok. Here are some examples that communicate validation of her fear:
I know it can be scary to try something you’ve never done before.
You are unsure about trying that new food.
You’re feeling nervous because you’re worried about falling from the balance beam.
2. Understand how avoidance works.
A sign that your child is afraid of something, is if she’s avoiding it. It’s adaptive, if you think about it. Remove yourself from the scary situation, and you won’t feel anxious anymore. The problem is, the next time that scary situation pops up, those anxious feelings will come rushing back. So, how do you stop this cycle? Help your child see she can manage her scary feelings, and avoid the avoidance. Take steps toward the feared thing to learn to tolerate the anxious feeling.
3. Understand your role as a parent when your child is anxious.
When your child’s anxiety rises, there are two approaches, support or protect. Support bridges the gap between your child’s abilities and the situation she faces. Protection is shielding your child from danger or possible danger. As the parent, you are aiming to support your child through her fears. You do need to take action. You do have a role. Your job is to notice how your child’s avoidance is interfering with her ability to develop, have fun, or with daily life. After you’ve identified it, you need to be the supportive coach. You can verbalize your role to your child by saying:
I know it’s tough for you to walk on the balance beam. I see that it makes you feel scared. Everyone feels scared some of the time. And it’s my job as your mommy to help you get better at things that are hard for you.
4. Model the desired behavior.
Kids will learn from the example you set. You can’t expect your child to confront a fear that you have too. Model how to do whatever she is afraid of. Make sure your child can see it’s safe, by seeing you do it first. Walk across the balance beam. Dunk your head into the pool. Eat the broccoli. Go down the tall, twisty slide.
5. Practice with small steps.
First, break down the feared thing into more manageable pieces for your child. Let’s say she’s afraid of bugs. Read books about bugs. Look at pictures of bugs. Watch videos of bugs. Hunt for bugs from far away. Run through the grass or dirt where there are bugs. Use a magnifying glass to examine bugs in a container. Let an ant crawl onto your finger. Let an ant crawl onto her finger. Be creative. Make whatever your child is afraid of into something fun. Second, give your child a lot of opportunities to practice. You don’t need to force the practice, but make sure the opportunity is there, frequently. The more she practices, and is successful, the less avoidant she will be.
6. Draw attention to brave behavior.
Verbally acknowledge any steps toward the fear. Continue to watch for more brave behavior and say it aloud. Keep talking about positive steps you see. Tell her she’s being so brave getting closer to that thing.
You splashed water on your face!
I see you walking closer to the edge of the pool.
Thanks for putting the broccoli on your fork.
I like that you took a small bite of the broccoli.
You’re watching the other kids go down the slide!
You held my hand as we walked closer to the slide.
7. Seek help from a mental health professional if you don’t see progress.
A trained clinician can further help with avoidant behavior that gets in the way of things your child needs or would like to do. Check out our resources page for places to find a great clinician with expertise in child anxiety.
We also list several books (like the one shown) to dive further into this topic. For a more individualized approach, CBC offers 1:1 parent coaching. We help you help your little kids overcome big fears.
With validation, support, and a lot of practice, your child will be a pro at managing her fears. We’re always here to help if the road is bumpy.