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Health & Parenting

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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? continued...

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."

This technique helps kids make the connection between how they feel when they're telling themselves these two very different stories, says Chansky.

Children who are afraid of natural disasters might also shift into a different mindset by teaching their parents what they've learned at school about storms, tornadoes, or earthquakes. This helps them solidify a different way of looking at the situation.

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