When Our Kids Are Scared

How can we help our kids overcome their fears? Most of us have the instinct to provide comfort with messages like “don’t worry, you’re safe, it will be alright.” In this episode, Janet explains why our children often need more than our reassurance, even when their fears seem unreasonable or overblown. The key: validating and encouraging each child’s intuitive process. Janet provides details by responding to notes from three families who have concerns about their children’s seemingly irrational fears.

Transcript of “When Our Kids Are Afraid”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I’m going to be talking about fears, our children’s fears. We can sort of divide them into two general categories: One is these fears that seem so irrational, and it’s almost hard for us to relate to them and understand them. Those are the types of fears that I’m going to be specifically addressing with the parents that have reached out to me in this podcast. But I’ll also be touching on fears that children have as a result of being exposed to something not age-appropriate, something that would scare any of us. Our process in both of these cases, in helping our children to work through their fears and make sense of them and come to grips with them, is quite similar in all of these cases, and I really hope this is helpful.

As I said, there are really two categories of fears: The seemingly irrational fears that don’t really make sense. They can be about things that seem very small and would not be scary to us as parents. And then there are fears that are unfortunate that our child has to be exposed to or experience. Not to blame ourselves, it happens. Both of these types of fears are challenging in different ways for us to deal with. The notes I’m going to be responding to are about childhood fears that are on the irrational end of the spectrum.

But let’s briefly talk about these what I’m calling non-age-appropriate fears: news images and events or other media that children are exposed to, like scary movies, medical interventions that are scary and uncomfortable, fears that we have that our children are picking up on. The challenging thing about these kinds of fears is that, for one, we may also be afraid, and it’s very hard to overcome that and try to be brave for our child to be able to help them process their own fear. And also we might feel a little guilty in some cases that our child got exposed to these things, or that we allowed our child to be in the position that they got exposed to them. Their reactions can be heartbreaking for us. And obviously we want to try to shield our children from these kinds of images and events as much as we possibly can, but it’s not always possible.

To give you a small example from my experience as a parent, one of my children—I won’t say which one—was about four years old, was at a neighbor’s house, and the older children in that home were watching an R-rated movie. It was very scary, it was a scary movie. And my child saw an image that just terrified them. And what happened was, this neighbor was quite close, so my child would walk over there, and I hear my child running down the street, screaming. And this is a child that did not do that kind of thing very often, they were quite mellow in their responses to things. When the child came in and told me what had happened, what they’d seen, I just felt terrible, and I felt so sorry for my child that they had to be exposed to that. And to hear them scream was really, really hard. Even though I had learned that was the best thing for them to be able to do, to yell and scream that terror that they felt.

And that right there is the key to all of this. Those of you that listen here will not be surprised that I’m saying this, you can probably guess. This commitment that we try to make—we’re not going to be perfect at it by any means—to let those feelings be, to welcome them, roll out the red carpet for our child to express that. Even though it breaks our heart, even though it makes us feel maybe guilty or that we did something wrong, the best thing we can do is encourage our child to feel what they feel. And, hopefully, not let it trigger our own feelings, so that we can be that safe person that our child can land their feelings with, even when it’s excruciating for us. So that’s the key in all of these cases I’m going to be talking about. And it definitely can be aspirational. It’s something to try for, not to be perfect at. It’s a direction that we want to try to head in and feel secure in, that this is the right thing. Because, as I said, it can feel like the hardest thing for us.

And here, besides screaming or yelling or expressing their fear that way, are some of the ways that children will naturally process fear. We want to try to encourage these because they’re nothing but healthy.

First, they play about it. Maybe this looks very inappropriate to us, like they’re being mean to their doll or their stuffed animal. I would try to trust and let that be, that if our child is behaving that way, that they need to be doing that, that they need a safe place to express that and process what they were exposed to. Now, if they’re taking this out on a sibling or a peer, we will want to intervene. I would try to do it as nonjudgmentally as possible, so that we’re not discouraging our child’s process. So maybe we say something like, “Hmm, I’m not comfortable with you talking to your sister that way, so I’m going to ask you to take a breather. Find another way to play.” So we’re not blaming our child, getting on their case so they feel that we’re kind of against them. We are just being reasonable and setting a limit that way. And, of course, if a child continues and maybe they need more of our help, “You know what? I’m going to have you hang with me for a bit because yeah, I’m just not comfortable with this.” But if this is with the doll or a toy or some other inanimate object, even if it seems alarming, I recommend letting it be.

The second major way that they work through fears is they bring it up repeatedly. They keep bringing up that situation, that thing that they saw on the street when we were walking, the way they observed somebody talking to somebody else, that movie. This is so healthy for them, and it shows that they are in the middle of a positive process, incredibly positive. So this is a good sign, not something that should alarm us more. Why can’t they get this out of their mind? Well, this is how they do it. As with other things that we can observe our child learning, they’re repeating it, repeating it, repeating it. So welcome that when they bring it up, “Oh yeah, you’re thinking about that again. You want to talk about what happened again.” Go through it with them, responsibly. “Yes, that did happen. You saw that, we did that, that happened to you,” or whatever it is. Help them by repeating the story with them.

An alternative that we don’t want because it’s not quite as healthy and might be a sign that children are not getting what they need from us, is that the fear seems to get worse, it builds. Even though the situation has ended, it seems to be becoming more intense. That’s a sign that maybe they need more of this acceptance that I’m talking about, more of this encouragement to share. And another thing, they could start generalizing that fear to other things. So it’s like it starts to spread for them. That’s another sign that they maybe need more encouragement from us to express what they feel in however way that they do it, as long as it’s safe.

Now, what about the fears that can seem totally irrational to us, even ridiculous? Oftentimes, if we can get out of our own heads and think more like a child, even these fears do make sense. And oftentimes, also, they’re metaphorical. They’re representing a sense of feeling out of control, or a loss of control, or other kinds of loss that our child feels. And there are a lot of these in a child’s life, not only situationally for young children, like when there’s a move or the birth of a sibling or discord between parents, other feelings of change and loss, but also developmentally, as they grow and develop, there’s a sense of newness and a loss of the old.

I remember a toddler in my class who one day brought in some plants, they weren’t flowers, but stems with leaves on them. And when one of the stems broke, she was inconsolable. And the parent said she’d been like that lately whenever something broke, anything. And the parent was in the early stages of pregnancy at that time, and that could be playing a part in this. But it could also be the child’s own feelings that they’re growing and the world can actually look different to them one day to the next, they’re growing so rapidly. There’s a lot of vulnerability in that, not wanting things to break, not wanting something to not be the same as it was because so much else is changing. So we want to try to trust that our child has a right to those feelings, as well as the ones that are really obviously warranted in our view.

Okay, so now here are some notes from parents that will help me explain more of the specifics of helping kids through their fears:

Hello, Janet-

My five-year-old son has an extreme fear of getting his feet dirty. The only time he is barefoot is in the bath. He puts socks, shoes on immediately. When he was three, he got tar on his feet at the beach. I calmly said, “That happens,” and cleaned it off as soon as we got home. Ever since he hasn’t gone barefoot, so much so that he wears water shoes in the pool or beach. If his feet get dirty through his socks, he screams with terror until I clean his feet. My husband and I are exhausted by this. Advice?

So here’s one that I can actually understand because I’ve had tar on my feet. I jog on the beach barefoot and I get tar on my feet, and it is a nasty thing. You have to put strong cleaners on to get it off, and it kind of spreads around if you don’t get it off. It’ll stick to your socks, it’ll stick to your shoes. It’s not a good feeling. So I could see that being a very unpleasant thing.

And I’m wondering what these parents might’ve done besides calmly saying, “That happens,” and cleaning it off. I mean, that’s great to be calm, it’s good to clean it off as soon as you get home. But I wonder if, and this is what I would suggest to this parent, if they’re making room for encouraging him to feel what he feels about it, to feel that discomfort. “You really don’t like getting that tar. I understand. It doesn’t feel good that it sticks onto you like that, and it’s hard to get off. You don’t want that to happen again. I get that.” Validating his fear that way. Which isn’t the same as saying, “I’m afraid of tar too, and I don’t want it anywhere near me.” So it’s not that we’re joining in his fear of it, but we’re validating, we’re connecting and understanding, or at least wanting to understand, that he feels that way.

So, when she says, “he screams with terror until I clean his feet, even if they get dirty through his socks,” that would be a time, at this point, that I would—it’s a weird thing to say take advantage of—but, I would welcome. You really don’t like this, this is just scary for you. And maybe we’re not saying those exact words, again, but just that willingness to allow him to scream and not see this the way that we often do as parents, as, Oh, this is a problem. I have to fix this. This isn’t okay. That’s what tires us. She says her “husband and I are exhausted by this.” Well, that can happen when we feel responsible to change that feeling that he’s having.

But that’s not our responsibility, nor is it helpful to this child, or any child. What’s helpful is to know that all feelings matter to a child and they’re all safe for us to allow. We don’t have to try to go up against them and fix them and make them better. Let it go. Let them be. Just nod your head, know that the screaming will pass and the screaming is the way it will pass. But when children can’t do that or it’s not welcome or they feel that we’re annoyed with them and frustrated that they’re feeling like this—all understandable—then they can’t process it. They can’t express it. They can’t move through it to the other side. So with our best intentions, we make it harder on ourselves, actually, by not giving way, by not allowing for that just to be his feeling about it.

And then from that place of welcoming all his feelings, because he’s five, you might ask if he wants to draw how he feels when his feet get dirty or sing a song about it. Or maybe ask if he wants to practice being dirty with a bucket of mud and then washing it off. But I would only suggest those things as possibilities, very openly, because again, that key will be to encourage his feelings to be.

And it sounds like this parent is doing this, but I would suggest not working to avoid natural situations where his feet get dirty. If he’s comfortable with the water shoes, that’s fine. That’s something that’s helping him to feel more autonomous in the situation. But I wouldn’t do any unnatural thing to avoid his feet getting dirty. That would be accommodating his fears, which is essentially when we try to avoid them. And that feels to a child like we’re agreeing with them, we’re agreeing that he can’t handle getting his feet dirty. And as I said, it sounds like this parent is already understanding that. She’s not avoiding places where he might naturally get dirt on his feet.

So that’s it, letting him scream even when it seems totally unreasonable. Okay, here’s another note from a parent:

Hi, Janet-

My two-year-old has had a fear of balloons for about six months now, and so many family events feature balloons (not at my own house, of course). If the balloons are secured to an arch or something, she can simply avoid getting close. But sometimes they’re bouncing around on the floor and her cousins start playing with them. And my daughter, when she sees those freely moving balloons, starts screaming and kicking and seems in total panic mode. She has told me that she remembers her cousin popped a balloon once, and I’m guessing that is where the fear comes from.

This cousin, who’s also two, loves balloons and has a fit if I try to put them away. I want to let my daughter process her fear, but I also don’t think it’s fair to leave her screaming in fear in front of the whole extended family. I would rather let her process at home in more privacy. We (me and the two-year-old cousin’s mom) have tried to ask the cousins to just pick one room to be the balloon room, so my daughter can easily avoid that room. But the other toddlers have trouble following that, so when nobody’s playing with them, I just hide them away.

I don’t want to be enabling or giving power to my daughter’s fear, but I just don’t want to make her have to do all that processing at a big family event. What are your suggestions?

This is another fear, like the tar on the feet, that I could actually relate to, because I don’t like when balloons pop. It makes a really loud noise, the balloon sort of disappears, and yeah, I can see where that’s uncomfortable. But I think like a child all the time, so. But yeah, that makes sense. And I love that this little two-year-old was able to express to her parent where this is coming from, which is she experienced it and she didn’t like it. And so of course, I’m wondering how this parent has reacted all the way through to her daughter’s feelings about the balloons. I’m not sure if she was there when her cousin popped it the first time, but I think she’s spot on that this is where the fear is coming from. And she said, “this cousin, who’s also two, loves balloons and has a fit if I try to put them away.”

So how does she help this girl? I think that’s also a wonderful instinct she has, that she doesn’t want her to be falling apart in front of everybody, that she deserves privacy when she’s having that kind of panic. But this also sounds really uncomfortable for the parent that she’s trying to navigate all of this, and Let me put these away because nobody’s here, and the whole event becomes about balloons for the parent as well. That’s uncomfortable, right?

I am wondering if this parent could lean more into understanding and relating to, and therefore validating, those feelings about the balloon popping. When her daughter told her that this happened, that would’ve been a moment to say, “Oh, you really didn’t like that, and now it makes you afraid of all balloons, right? That they might pop any second and make that loud noise.” Sometimes we feel as parents that we shouldn’t say those things, those truths about what’s going on. That, Oh gosh, if I talk about all of this, it’s going to make it worse. But it never does. It helps a child feel okay for how they feel, that they have a right to feel that way. And they don’t have to be afraid of the feeling of being afraid because that doesn’t seem acceptable with my family. “That can be scary, and it’s scary to you. You don’t like it. And that makes you not even want to have fun with balloons because you’re worried that’s going to happen any second, right?” I would be sure that you’re reflecting with her that way.

And then when you are in this situation, I would let her know ahead of time so that she feels as much autonomy in this situation as possible. I would prepare her from this place of joining her, being fearlessly on her team. “We’re going to this party with your cousins, and there may be balloons there.” And maybe you know if there will be, because you’re in touch with people, and you could say, “There’s going to be balloons. And when those balloons pop, I know it’s very, very scary for you, right? You get so upset. You don’t like that popping sound, and it seems like you’re afraid that’s going to happen. The way that balloon just breaks and disappears, yeah, it’s so scary for you.” And then I would also say, “If you want, you can sit on my lap while the balloons are out. Or we can just keep moving to another room, if there’s balloons. We can do that, or you can stay with me and when you get upset, you can tell me about it. I want to know when you feel scared. You can always share that with me.” I believe if this parent isn’t already doing it to this extent, that this will help a lot. And maybe she’ll end up sharing with you at home about the feelings more if you open up that conversation, saying all those things that she could be feeling.

And then if she still has an emotional response while she’s there, just calmly take her, with that kind of head nodding, accepting, Yeah, there’s that scary thing. You don’t like to see all those balloons around you. Taking her aside to another room and then welcoming her to share, wherever you are. And I believe that if you really lean in and allow this all the way, and join her in this teamwork of getting it, understanding that she feels this way and that it really makes sense to her, at least, she’ll move through. But it’s like children, sometimes they just don’t really feel seen and heard and safe in what they’re feeling a hundred percent, because it throws us off-balance. And then it’s harder to be that for them. So lean into her right to be terrified by balloons. Don’t try to make it better. Trust it, and it will pass.

Okay, one more:

Hi, Janet-

I’m running into an odd thing with my two-year-old. She’s recently developed a fear of a woodpecker specter whom she imagines is some kind of monster that threatens her, the family, the car, etc. She wakes up in the middle of the night after having nightmares about it. Over the last few weeks, my husband and I have both spoken with her, telling her that we will keep her safe, that the dog keeps her safe, that the house is a safe space, etc. We talk about how woodpeckers eat bugs and do not hurt humans. And we watched a few nature videos together of non-threatening woodpeckers. There’s a woodpecker in one of her books, and she asks us to read her that book all the time. In the book, the woodpecker surprises/scares a baby owl who is sleeping. We also can hear a woodpecker outside the house most mornings, something she was excited about initially, but now is afraid of.

Is there something we could do to make her feel a bit better? I keep circling back to my husband’s love for scary movies. Do you think she wants us to read the book with the woodpecker in it because she likes to be scared? Do you think I should hide the book? Should we just ride it out? Thanks for your help.

Okay, so I’m not sure about the timing of all of this, but I’m getting the sense that this little girl became frightened because of this book that she wants to keep reading. So there’s that repetition, that’s what that’s about. This woodpecker surprises and scares a baby owl who is sleeping. This maybe isn’t a bedtime book for that reason, and so I would maybe focus on reading it to her other times of the day. Just, “We’re going to read that one in the morning, but let’s read a different one now.”

This definitely sounds like the kind of thing that could spur a fear and even create nightmares. Because whenever children see or hear things that surprise them, that disturb them in some ways, yes, that touches off all these feelings of what we don’t control in life. Young children especially feel that lack of control. That’s why they can get caught up in all kinds of controlling behaviors.

Movies and videos of any kind can be a little more scary than books even, because they’re designed to surprise and stimulate. And with all the editing that goes on, they can definitely be the source of nightmares and fears. So for that reason, I’m not sure I would recommend watching videos about it, although I like the other things this parent is doing. The videos can be disturbing very easily, without us even realizing it. And if a child is having an intense response like this to something that happens in a book—which happens, this happened with my children as well—then imagine something that she has much less control over, like a video or a TV show. So that’s just something to keep in mind.

And what this girl is doing, again, is very, very healthy. Children have this remarkable process for healing, and this is what she’s doing. She’s trying to sort this out for herself by asking to hear this story again and again. And they do this around all kinds of things that disturb them. They will naturally work on processing the experience so that they can understand it and work it through their systems. So really our job is just to help that along, to encourage this healthy process that our children have, which in this case she’s doing with repetition. So, being willing to read the book as many times as she wants, whenever we’re reading books. I mean, we don’t have to become a slave to reading it to her whenever she wants, but just knowing that this is really healthy for her, when we can do it.

And also that our feelings will matter a lot in this situation, as they matter in every parenting situation. So if we’re concerned—and all these parents were concerned enough to write to me—there’s a pretty good chance that our child is picking up on our concern, and that can actually get in the way. I mean, it’s normal that we do that, but it can get in the way by giving her the feeling that her process isn’t safe and okay, like we want her to believe. This digestion that she’s doing of the experience. Children always need our own comfort in the situation as a baseline. If they don’t have that, it’s harder for them to get comfortable, maybe even impossible. And then they can’t do this work that they’re so good at doing. So, calming ourselves, knowing our children are working on a process. This girl’s healthy, this is what children do.

And it’s very common for children at this age to start having fears, all the way through age four and maybe even five or six. And one of the themes behind this kind of fear sometimes is the power a child feels in themselves, which can be kind of scary if we’re not being as clear and comfortable about boundaries or when we get upset or worried when our child is upset. Those kinds of things can make our child feel even more fearful around the power that they have, so they can project that into these different fears and nightmares. And the thing to know about that, again, is that this is normal for development and that having clear, comfortable boundaries with children is always a good idea. It’s really the most loving thing we can do.

So, what this girl’s process sounds like it’s looking like is she needs the parent to want to go over the book with her again as much as she wants, and really have this exploratory attitude, this open attitude. Maybe we’re looking at her when she’s looking at the book and we could say, “Looks like you’re puzzled about that baby owl, or you seem like you really don’t like that that happened with the baby owl. That was disturbing, right?” So we’re in acceptance and we’re just allowing her to bounce her thoughts off of us. And being that open, nonjudgmental person that I’m recommending in all these cases, this is something to try to practice throughout our life and relationship with our child. Because it’s the key to us getting to hear their innermost thoughts, for them to share those fears with us, which we always want them to do, right? We’re getting to hear what’s going on in their minds and hearts.

So in the case of the car, I would allow her to say that she sees the monster in the car. She feels like it’s out there. And I would acknowledge: “You really feel like there’s something out there that could come in. That’s really uncomfortable for you. We have a safe car.” So I would definitely say those reassuring things like this parent is saying, but then focus even more on acknowledging her side. And then every once in a while, yes, also say, “We will do our best to keep you safe. We have a safe house. Woodpeckers don’t normally do those kinds of things.” Those kinds of statements will come more naturally to us, but this other part of letting them feel what they feel is going to be harder for us. And equally, if not more important, that focus on exploring and welcoming what she’s feeling.

And also exploring solutions with her so that she can feel more autonomous in this process. It’s one thing for us to say, Don’t worry, we’ve got all this covered, but maybe there’s an action that she wants to take. “Would you like to close the curtains?” In the case of that boy with the fear of the dirt on his feet, “Would you like to wear your water shoes?” And in this case with the woodpecker, “Would you prefer to get in the car and sit on this side? We can move your car seat over.” If those things are an option, whatever it is, we can explore with our child how they would like to do it, what would make them feel more comfortable. That’s not the same as accommodating. This is empowering. That can also help her to feel a bit better.

So in all of these cases, we can really understand where the fear is coming from, it’s clear. But sometimes we won’t know where children get it from, and then it’s harder to be open, knowing that it came from somewhere. The best thing for our child to do is to cover every aspect of it with us and share with us, with us just bravely going with them on this journey, from that place of maturity that we do know that they’re safe, and we believe that, and we know that they’re doing something very, very healthy. So I don’t think in this case it relates to the husband’s love for scary movies. I don’t think she’s loving this. I think she’s wanting to overcome this and understand her own feelings about it, that she is scared of this woodpecker and that it could surprise and alarm a baby owl in their sleep. She’s trying to understand it, figure it out. And so I definitely don’t think she’s ready for scary movies yet. I don’t think that’s what this is about.

And this parent said, “Do you think I should hide the book?” Definitely not. “Should we just ride it out?” Yes. That’s what I’m saying is, ride it out. Be that open place. See this as a gift in your relationship: You’re getting to hear her innermost thoughts. You’re getting to help her problem-solve. You’re showing her that you’re a nonjudgmental place for her to share whatever with. It can be the wildest thing in the world, you’re not going to judge her or say, Oh, come on. Don’t be afraid of that. It’s just this. Just is one of the words that’s commonly used to invalidate. Whenever we say, It’s just this, it’s just a dog, it’s just an owl, it’s just a woodpecker. Look how nice the woodpecker is. None of that is helpful.

And yeah, it is a phase. And so in that sense, letting the feelings be, riding it out. But as her anchor, not riding these ups and downs along with her, that doesn’t help her to feel as safe. But we don’t want her to ride it out without our support. And believe it or not, the long view on these is that they are precious bonding experiences.

So, in summary: One, welcome the feelings, whatever they are. Two, encourage children to process these feelings in their way and time, through play or repetition, etc. Three, if possible, let children make choices that give them a bit of control in the situation.

I really hope this helps. 

And please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And my books, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame, and Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting, you can get them in paperback at Amazon and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and apple.com.

And now, at last, I have a online course! Learn more at: NoBadKidsCourse.com.

Thank you so much for listening. We can do this.

1 Comment

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Regarding the child with the “fear” of getting his feet dirty, there may be some sensory processing difficulties here that are being missed by viewing this as a fear. I’m surprised that this was not addressed as an alternative.

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