Is your child afraid of something, even if it seems small to you? Learn about helping children overcome fear and anxiety effectively and with compassion.
My toddler has a fear of public restrooms. He was hardly the fan even as an infant, when he would wail and cry as I changed his diaper on the changing table.
As a toddler, changing his diaper became more a struggle, since he was strong enough to wiggle his way out.
Now we’re trying to encourage him to use the toilets (and with no diaper as a backup). And this fear of the public restroom has yet again grown to the forefront and required more of our attention.
Helping children overcome fear
So I needed some tips on how to help your child overcome fear, and this is what I learned:
Remind yourself that this isn’t about you
I remind myself not to take my son’s fear of public restrooms personal. He isn’t objecting to defy, disobey or make our day worse. This is about his emotions. I felt disappointed, yes, but I try to focus on him and help him overcome fear.
Find something—however small—your child did that you can praise
We recently visited the library when I mentioned that I wanted to use the restroom. As expected, 20 seconds in the restroom and he wanted out.
So imagine his surprise when, on our way out to the car, I said, “I’m so proud of you.” I continued, “Even though you were afraid to enter the bathroom, you stayed in there for a full 20 seconds!”
He stopped crying and repeated the words back to me. He realized what he did wasn’t bad, but was actually a little progress towards something. I went on: “Maybe next time we visit a public bathroom, we can try to stay for even longer.”
Discuss your child’s emotions
Using words and labels to discuss feelings helps children identify the real and strong emotions they have. When he’s ready and calm, talk to your child about the potential feelings he may have felt. Was he scared, afraid, not sure, surprised, caught off-guard? He knows these feelings aren’t unusual and that names exist for them.
Show empathy toward your child’s fears
When you’ve been using public restrooms for decades, we forget how scary it can be from a toddler’s view. Instead, place yourself in his shoes and empathize with what he may be feeling.
“I don’t like public restrooms myself all that much. They can be loud, lots of people are around, and sometimes they’re even smelly and dirty!” When your child sees that you’re on his side, he’s likely to see you as a partner in crime that’s here to help.
Download my PDF, The Power of Empathy, and learn how to prevent power struggles and instead better connect with your kids, all by understanding their perspective. Join my newsletter and get it below—at no cost to you:
Gradually introduce fears
Just because your child gets scared of huge waves at the beach doesn’t mean you should never take him to the beach again. Instead, continue going and introduce the waves little by little.
This might mean sitting there as he spends a few minutes looking at the sand and the waves. Maybe he’ll stretch his hands to run his fingers through them. He won’t go in the ocean after just one visit, but every little experience helps him realize this isn’t so bad.
Respect his feelings
Try not to brush your child’s emotions aside as petty or inconsequential. Instead, reassure him that his fears are real. Just as real as an adult’s fears of public speaking or of a dark alley.
And don’t push him to “get over it,” or get upset or impatient when he doesn’t seem to budge. This world can be daunting, and the last thing kids need is a parent who’s upset at them because they’re afraid.
Remember that these irrational fears will go away
It’s easy to feel like our kids will forever have these fears if we don’t do anything about them now. But many of these fears will go away on their own. Show empathy and validate your child’s feelings without rushing him out of them. You’ll find yourself looking back and saying, “Remember when he was so afraid of [fill in the blank]?”
Get more tips on helping your child overcome fear:
- 9 Useful Techniques for Dealing with Anxiety in Young Children
- 23 Children’s Books about Feelings
- Parenting Mistakes: Judging Your Child’s Emotions
- “It’s Okay”: Why You Shouldn’t Dismiss the Emotions of a Child
- “Help! My Toddler is Scared of the Bath.”
Tell me in the comments: What are your biggest struggles with helping children overcome fear?