When I was a young girl, I was afraid of dogs and of cats. I had bad experiences with both types of animals at an early age. My aunt had a Dalmatian that used to growl under her kitchen table. I was almost positive that he was going to bite off my toes. At one point, he ran me over in my aunt's driveway.
When I was five, my grandmother's Persian cat took a swipe out of my palm, and I was left with a nasty scratch. For years afterward, I was terrified around animals.
The story has a happy ending; I have two cats today and love every friendly dog I see. And, I eventually got over my fear of swimming, at the age of 12.
For parents who have a child that's traumatized by something in the universe, whether it be the dark, animals, getting shots, learning to swim, or staying at home with a babysitter, it's disconcerting when you can't readily find an antidote to that fear.
Child therapist Clair Mellenthin, LCSW, says this is all part of normal childhood development. “Many parents are confused by their child who, until last week, slept through the night, kept the door closed, and wasn't worried about monsters under their bed – and this week has morphed into a hysterical, frightened, over-tired monster themselves.”
How parents address their child's fears goes a long way in alleviating the symptoms of fear, Mellenthin advises.
“Take the time to ask your child to describe their fear- what are they really afraid of? For instance, a child who is afraid to have the lights off at night may really be more afraid that you won't hear her when she feels worried or nervous during the night,” she says. Never shame your child for expressing a worry or fear. Instead, validate the fear and then engage your child in finding a solution or developing a plan on how they overcome it and empower themselves, Mellenthin suggests.
If the child is very young, psychotherapist Barbara Neitlich offers that parents can help the child choose a transitional object such as a stuffed animal to help them to feel safe and secure in the dark.
On other common childhood fears, experts offer the following advice:
Learning to swim: “If your child fears the water then respect that fear. Tell them you understand their feelings and that they can decide if they want to go in. Model for them the safety and fun of the water while still respecting their hesitancy,” Neitlich says.
Separation: Separation anxiety or fear can be complex. If your child fears that they are going to be left behind or that you will forget to pick them up from school, ask them why they think that, Neitlich says. “Help your child by creating a transitional object together (e.g. beaded bracelets are great for elementary school girls). By creating something together and showing them that they always have something with them (of Mommy/or Daddy) they begin to feel a bit safer in their environment.”
Getting shots: Let your doctor know about your child's fear of shots ahead of time, Stephanie Moulton Sarkis, PhD NCC LMHC www.stephaniesarkis.com, says. “Ask your doctor for a prescription for a skin-numbing cream. Remember the cream needs to be applied ahead of time.” Moulton also says that it may be helpful to distract your child during the shot, and to always stay calm. “Don't tell your child it won't hurt. Tell them it will feel like a pinch.” Bring your child's favorite toy with them, and reward them afterward, she says.
Animals: Help your child to verbalize what it is they are afraid of with dogs, Neitlich advises. “With animals I often find it is helpful for the child to draw a picture telling a story why they are afraid. Helping them to put their feelings into words often helps to diminish the fear.” Candi Wingate, president of Nannies4Hire, says it's also useful to read books and watch movies about friendly dogs and cats, and to steer clear of animals that you don't know or whose temperaments may reinforce your child's fear. “Gradually increase time with and proximity to dogs and cats as your child's comfort level grows. When your child is ready, pet a dog or cat together. Ultimately, encourage your child to hold a dog or cat,” Wingate says.
My own son was afraid of the next door neighbor's dog, who was friendly, but had a loud bark and big wagging tail. Instead of avoiding her, I made sure we went outside to say hi every morning.
Eventually, the two became friends.
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