When I was three, my parents accidentally took me to a haunted house. They thought it was for kids, very family-friendly, maybe a place filled with bobbing for apples, jack-o-lanterns, and the odd scarecrow.
It wasn’t. Going through a real, grown-up, terrifying haunted house at not-even-preschool-age could have scarred me for life. But it didn’t, because my dad held me and showed me how to cover my face in his fleece-lined coat. I remember having that special little place in my daddy’s arms, and nothing else. It’s one of those stories of an event that worried my parents much more than it worried me.
Now that I’m a mom of two, I know that giving your kids nightmares is also a parent’s worst nightmare. We do everything we can to keep our kids feeling safe, but this world isn’t perfect, and fear is usually part of the equation for every child.
So, what can a mom do when her little one is afraid? How do you soothe and help your kiddo understand reality without downplaying her fears or ignoring her imagination?
Thankfully, my hubby is a licensed therapist with loads of experience in working with kids and parents. Here are a few tips out of his back pocket that we can all use when our kids are suffering from anxiety and fears.
1. Change the channel
Instead of telling your kiddo that what they’re afraid of isn’t a real threat, help them imagine something else. Say, “let’s change the channel,” (or if you don’t do TV, how about, “let’s change the story”?) and guide your kiddo in imagining something beautiful and happy. I love talking about a real memory of a good time we experienced together.
2. Monster Spray
This works because it gives your kiddo power by taking action against their fears. Make a little “monster spray” that your kiddo has at their bedside. Fill a spray bottle with distilled water, a teaspoon of rubbing alcohol, and several drops of their favorite essential oil. Teach them to shake it and spray at their fears.
3. Talk about what they know.
Reciting truth will help your child get a bit more grounded in reality. My son has been afraid of wolves lately, and he imagines that they prowl in his room at night. When I ask him to tell me what he knows about wolves, he’ll say, “well, they hunt and sleep in packs, they howl, and they don’t eat people.” I might remind him about where they live (i.e. not in our area!) and how safe our home is. If your child can learn facts about the source of their fears, it goes a long way in helping them feel better about it. Knowledge really is power.
4. Grownups Come Back
I’m stealing this one from Daniel Tiger for good reason – this little song has made a difference for my daughter. She simply lights up when we sing it and it’s come to our rescue more than once. Music is a powerful way to communicate, and children learn so much easier when a concept is taught in song. Even if your kiddo isn’t afraid of your absence, any song about being brave may just make a difference for them.
5. Scary Things Check
If darkness poses a problem for your child, stay with him after the lights are out and ask him if everything looks ok. If he finds something scary, go over to it and show him what it really is. You can cover up anything that looks scary, or put it in the closet. Before you go, tell your child that you are always close by and they are safe.
In any situation that brings out your child’s fears, taking deep breaths can make a very big difference. A study found that deep breathing triggers neurons in the brain that tell the body to relax. So teach your child how to breathe deeply and practice together so that they have this technique down when he needs it.
Regularly practice simple ways to bond and physically soothe your child, like hugs, brushing hair, cuddling while you read together, or holding hands while you pray. Having a calm time together will also prime your child for relaxing, and it should be used before she faces her fears.
My husband and I pray with our kids every night, but we’ve also found it’s important for our kids to pray on their own, especially when they’re afraid. Let your kids say the prayer before bed, suggest prayer to them in different situations, and model a healthy prayer life. When my son saw my prayer board with sticky notes on it, he asked to make his own, and boom–he’d turned his bedroom into a war room without any prompting from me.
If you do these things, it’s likely that your child will develop his own prayer habits and turn to God when he’s afraid. It’s pretty amazing as a parent to know that your kiddo turns to God for help with facing his fears.
9. Role play their fears.
Grab some of your child’s character toys or dolls, and act out the situation that triggers your child’s fears while he’s watching. First, show your child’s fearful response. The second time, have the character wonder what they can do, get an idea, and then respond differently. You can allow your child to be involved however she’d like, whether it’s offering up ideas or playing a role as one of the characters. As the parent, try to come up with more than one solution ahead of time, and get creative to see what might connect with your child.
10. Make a safe place.
Kids love things like tents and forts because it sends them the message that they’re safe and cozy, much like they felt in the womb. If your child is prone to experiencing mild anxiety, create a small space for them to escape to. It could be as simple as a play tent filled with a blanket, stuffed animal, and a pillow.
I hope these tips were helpful, and that your child can navigate his fears with a growing faith. My motto is to do what I can as a mom, but leave what’s out of my control safely in God’s hands.
That’s my best advice for you as well. Help your child out with these tips while you trust that God will soothe her fears. And whenever possible, wear a fleece-lined coat.
Laura is a busy stay-at-home mama of two fueled by coffee and livin’ on a prayer. She loves encouraging moms to live a full life, walk in faith, practice self care, and enjoy teaching and building bonds with their young children. She blogs at Cheered On Mom.
Looking for more resource on Christian parenting? Check out this post on Strategies for Parenting with Eternity in Mind and Raising Godly Children in a Broken World.