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Monday, April 23, 2007

Childhood fears

Before birth, a mother’s womb envelops the child, which protects it from the world outside. At birth, she finds herself in a world that is totally strange and unfamiliar to her; hence, the origin of her fears. Fear becomes an integral part of a child, as she grows up and begins to explore her surroundings and becomes overwhelmed with all the strange things, noises, people and events that are occurring in her life. Therefore, it is appropriate for a child to be fearful.

Some common childhood fears from birth to 5yrs.

Certain fears are typical at certain ages. At birth, a child is afraid of strangers holding her, as she is only familiar with the sound and smell of her mother. She might even be fearful of her own father. However, gradually she recognizes both her parents. This fear is termed ‘stranger anxiety’, which lasts until the child is about 18 months old.

At 8-9 months, the child begins to stand up and try a few steps on her own. Her fears then include falling down and separating from her mother. As she begins to walk, she understands that she can leave her mother and that her mother can leave her.

When the child is around 1 yr old, she is still fearful of separation from her parents. However, she is now trying to be independent by exploring the world around her. All objects that move and make sounds fascinate her. At this stage, children can be afraid of almost anything that appears strange to them. For e.g., animals, taking a bath, loud noises made by crackers or lightening thunder, doctor etc.

From 2yrs to 5yrs, children go through a wide range of experiences. This is the time when parents opt to put her in a day care or crèche for a few hours, then comes schooling, toilet training, she may have another sibling at this time, and she learns the essential difference between boys and girls. These experiences would give seed to new fears, e.g., separation from parents, bath, bedtime, doctor, anyone who looks different from a family member, monsters and ghosts, toilet training, going to day care, getting lost, injury, loss of parent, divorce, death.
In short, fears can arise in children due to their growing independence, change in their surroundings, lack of knowledge and from the parents own fears.

Symptoms of fear and anxiety in children

It is imperative that you handle a child’s normal fears correctly or they can become excessive and/ or can persist into adulthood. Children express their anxiety in many different ways: -
1. Difficulty in concentrating.A fearful child will often have difficulty paying attention. For e.g., the child may have problems in school, completing assignments, listening in class, etc.
2. Changes in normal activity level.An anxious child may be more active than usual, seeming hyperactive, or, they may be less active than usual, seeming slow and lethargic. What parents should look for is a change in their children’s activity levels.
3. Changes in eating habits.Some anxious or fearful children have little or no appetite, as a result eat less than what is normal for them. Other children eat more than usual.
4. Regression.Many children who are experiencing anxiety will regress in some way. For e.g., a child who is fully toilet trained may begin nighttime wetting, or a child who has stopped sucking her thumb may start the habit again.
5. Changes in sleep habits.Anxious children may have difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep, and have nightmares that are more frequent and /or night terrors.
6. Occurrence of psychosomatic (physical) complaints. Fearful children may complain of physical ailments such as stomachaches or headaches.

Parents should keep in mind that children experiencing normal fears do not generally present the above symptoms. When fears become excessive, these symptoms can develop. However, there are certain things that parents should avoid when they learn of their children’s fears.
a) DO NOT expect child’s fear to go away overnight.
b) DO NOT shame your child for her fears.
c) DO NOT force her to face her fears. This will make the situation only worse.
d) Try NOT to tell your children that they will be a “ big boy” or a “ big girl” when they overcome their fear. This puts too much pressure on him.

Take steps to help children overcome fear.

# Teach relaxation skills. – There are various relaxation techniques that parents can use to help their children release the tension caused by anxiety. First, make children use their imagination or develop positive and relaxing images (e.g., playing on the beach). Second, teach them to relax various muscle groups systematically. Use these techniques on a daily basis for them to be most effective. Call a professional to provide this training under his care and guidance.
# Teach ways to counter anxiety. Parents can encourage their children to listen to music when they are anxious, because music tends to have a calming effect on them. Alternatively, parents can distract them from their fears by involving them in activities like counting coins, naming all the children in her class, naming her favorite foods etc.
# Gradually desensitize. Parents should encourage children to confront their fears gradually, and let them set their own pace. They should not force a child to do anything they are not comfortable with. In some cases, professional assistance may be necessary. For e.g., a child afraid of the dentist chair needs to be gradually desensitized to it which can be done only by the dentist himself, with the help of the parents.
To conclude, one can say that most fears in children are very common. They are essentially a normal part of a child’s growth and development. However, in some cases, fear can become a serious problem. If it is found that a child is afraid, either of a specific thing or generally fearful, it can seriously interfere with her and/ or her family’s everyday life, even though the parent has taken appropriate steps to help her cope with it. In such circumstances, it is best for the parent to seek professional assistance.

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