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4 ways to help a child overcome fear

Shy and anxious childThere are many advantages to being on the introverted side of the personality scale. Children who are shy are often described as being more sensitive, empathic, and caring. In fact, countless famous leaders and innovators are self-confessed introverts, like Albert Einstein, J.K Rowling, Bill Gates, and Eleanor Roosevelt to name a few.

For some children though, their shyness and anxiety can lead to significant problems. If a child always avoids situations that cause them discomfort and anxiety, they can miss out on opportunities for friendship, positive experiences and academic success, among other things. When this happens, it is what mental health professionals refer to as an anxiety disorder.

4 strategies for helping a child overcome fear

The Macquarie University’s Centre for Emotional Health has been following a group of shy and confident children over the past 10 years to find out more about why some children develop problems with anxiety. They have also been testing ways to prevent and treat these problems.

There are some simple strategies parents can put into practice that will reduce the child’s chances of developing problems with anxiety. Each of these strategies focuses on courage.

1. Don’t rush in too soon

As a parent, it is often extremely difficult to watch your child experience anxiety. A natural reaction is to want to rush in to relieve their distress. By jumping in too soon though, our research suggests that in the long run, this makes things worse as the child never learns she can do it on her own. She also misses out on an opportunity to learn that perhaps it wasn’t as scary as she first thought.

Think about, for instance, a child attending a birthday party for a friend from kindy. Imagine that on the way to the party your daughter says she doesn’t want to go. She becomes upset and refuses to get out of the car to go to the party. As a parent you have a choice; do you take her home and avoid the embarrassment of judging onlookers and the dreaded possibility of a tantrum or an emotional outburst in front of everyone? Or do you encourage her to face the fear and help her go to the party?

To make this decision, ask yourself “What will my child learn?” If you choose to go back home, the child learns that it is OK to avoid situations that make her feel uncomfortable and anxious. She misses out on the opportunity to learn that perhaps it is not as bad as she thinks. She also misses out on opportunities that may lead to other positive events in her life like new friendships or other party invitations.

On the other hand, if you encourage your child to go to the party, she would learn the importance of facing her fears. We feel anxious and fearful when we think something bad is going to happen. Perhaps your child is worried others will laugh at her, or she might do something embarrassing, or she won’t have anyone to talk to. By facing the situation, she can test out these beliefs and most likely discover that she can handle it.

2. Overcome fear by facing fear

One of the most effective ways to overcome fears and anxiety is by facing the fear.

This is best done in a gradual way starting with an easy step and working up to more difficult situations. For example, if your child is worried about meeting new people at parties, then set her bravery tasks every day (or several times a day) where she practices saying goodbye to carers or children she knows well. Then the next step could be practicing saying goodbye to people she doesn’t know well. Then when she can do this step with ease, she can practice saying hello to people she knows well and then finally, to people she doesn’t know well.

Sometimes it helps with younger children to make it into a game, for instance, a treasure hunt. You could encourage your child to find out the eye-colour of a teacher or child, or whether they have earrings. The main point is that the child needs to practice each step until they are comfortable moving on to the next step.

3. Practice bravery often and reward success

Encouraging your child to practice bravery and practice often is an important step towards overcoming fears and anxiety.

Use your attention to shape your child’s behaviour. Rather than focusing on the times they are distressed and worried, focus on the moments they show courage. The more you attend to your child’s courageous moments, the more likely these moments will increase.

Getting the balance right is important; you don’t want to overpraise your child or make too much of a fuss as this will likely be overwhelming. But if you provide your child an appropriate reward for each completed step, this increases the chance of success.

4. Label feelings, not your child

It is also not particularly helpful to label your child as shy. Labels tend to stick and communicate to the child that her anxiety is unchangeable. It is important to label the feeling but not the child.

Rather than saying “You are so shy” it is more helpful to say “You are feeling worried about going to the party”. Anxiety and worry are normal emotions and so it is useful to develop strategies from a young age to manage these feelings.

Avoiding situations or the feelings that make a child uncomfortable only serves to reinforce that there is something to fear. Gently encourage your child to face the situations they find difficult rather than trying to protect them from it. By making use of these strategies, you can equip your child to embrace life’s challenges and set them on the pathway to a healthy life.

About Professor Jennie Hudson

Professor Jennie Hudson is the director of the Centre for Emotional Health (CEH) at Macquarie University. She is an internationally recognised, leading researcher in the field of youth anxiety. The CEH conducts ...

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