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Take a Closer Look

It’s hard to know how to handle anxious children when particular fears hold them back from participating in ordinary activities. Kids may be afraid of sleeping alone in the dark, of riding the school bus, of walking past a house with a barking dog in the yard — the possibilities are endless. Parents naturally want to reduce their children’s distress by, in these examples, sharing the parental bed at night, driving them to school, or crossing the street to avoid the particular house. Accommodations such as these seem to bring relief for the child (and often for the parent), but it’s a short-term benefit with a significant long-term risk. According to latest research: parental accommodations often maintain and perpetuate the original fear. Parental accommodations deprive kids of discovering that they have the ability to cope with and surmount their fear with the right practice and support. In Facing Fears, mom relies on four essential elements that anxiety-laden children need to experience: 

Accept The Fear

Mom doesn’t judge her daughter’s fear as good, bad, right, or wrong. She uses empathic listening so the child feels seen and heard in her fear (see Trusting Emotions). Dismissing or belittling a child’s fear can give rise to shame, which then might block the child’s ability to take in a parent’s message about learning to face and cope with the fear. 

Promote Practice

Facing fears head-on is the best way to learn to cope with uncomfortable or frightening situations. (See Help for Anxiety: Facing Your Fears Will Heal Your Brain.) Some childhood fears are to be expected, depending on a child’s age and stage of development. Kids may not need more than a parent’s comfort and reassurance — without an accommodation — to face those “ordinary” fears. In the Facing Fears video, mom resists bringing her daughter into the parental bed, knowing it would be an unhelpful accommodation to do so. She wisely recognizes that her daughter is at an age where sleeping in her own bed is a reasonable expectation, and so an accommodation might end up creating a bigger problem than it would solve. Fears that begin to interfere with customary activities in the child and family’s life may need more parent support and sometimes professional assistance. (See The Age by Age Guide to Kid Fears for more information on fears associated with different developmental stages.)

Convey Confidence

Let your child hear you express confidence in their ability to succeed, with practice, at facing and coping with the fear.

Expect Success

Embrace the expectation that a positive outcome is not beyond reach. If a child’s fear has not become severely entrenched, the application of these principles over time may prove sufficient to prevent a transient situation from becoming more enduring. Once a child’s fear has become entrenched, the help of a counselor familiar with the “Avoid Accommodations” approach may be needed to assist parents with this often-tricky challenge (see Accommodating Anxiety). Either way, an expectation of success can shape a child’s own sense of hopefulness about effective coping.

Watch the video without narration

Talking to Kids You Love is written and created by Aaron Cooper, Ph.D., in collaboration with Marina Eovaldi, Ph.D., and Benjamin Rosen, Ph.D. The project is made possible by a generous grant from The Golub Family Foundation.