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Childhood Fears and Anxieties

Experts describe how parents can help when their child is afraid.

How can you help your child with fears like these?

At any age, break the challenge into small steps, says Chanksy. She suggests tackling that big, dark cave of a closet by turning it into something fun and positive. "By creating a competing emotion," she says, "you help burn out the anxiety." Be creative, says Chansky: Go into the dark and read a book by flashlight. Make five goofy faces, and get out right away. Play 20 questions. This all gets your child into a different frame of mind. Practice often, for the best results.

Dogs are another big fear for preschoolers, says Chansky. Dogs are often big, loud jumpers -- not a good combination for small ones.

Again, Chansky suggests approaching the fear in steps. Resist the temptation either to overprotect or to prompt with, "It's fine, come on!" says Chansky. Instead, give your child opportunities for direct, safe experiences. Talk to a dog's owner and ask, "Is the dog friendly? Can we say 'hi'?" suggests Chansky. "Or, ask your child, 'Is the dog's tail wagging? That's the sign of a happy dog.'" If you have a friend with a dog, let the "sleeping dog lie" -- and let your child observe. That allows a safe entrée to the world of dogs.

Through her research, Lagattuta has learned that children as young as 3 or 4 may know that anticipating the future can cause worry.

"They understand that negative thoughts can make you feel bad before they understand that positive thoughts can help you feel good, which happens around age 7," she says. Despite this awareness, young preschoolers lack the attentive powers to redirect their thoughts, which may explain why trying to talk your young child out of her fears is unproductive. With her own 4-year-old, Lagattuta used a more tangible aid -- having her child draw pictures in a "happy journal," to which she added words as she got older.

Easing Fears in School-Aged Children

An explosion of knowledge and experience during the school years introduces children to more real-world dangers: fire drills, burglars, storms, and wars. Realism begins to set in.

Don't always assume you know the precise source of your child's fears, however. If your child shuns public pools, is it really the water and drowning she's afraid of? Or, is it the lifeguard's whistle? The only way to know is to ask.

With younger children, you can draw them out -- literally. Have them draw two pictures: One is a picture of themselves in the scary situation with a thought "worry bubble" that tells what they're thinking about themselves. Then have them draw a second picture of themselves in the same situation, but with a "smart bubble" that has calmer, more realistic thoughts.

A child who's afraid of a teacher's rejection might say, "The teacher will send me to the principal if I forget my homework." But the "smart bubble" might say, "My friend, Alex, did forget his homework and the teacher only asked him to write himself a reminder."

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