Fear is normal, but we have to teach children to not allow fear to limit their lives.
Let’s speak in general terms, for fears that don’t require treatment. First of all, fear and anxiety can be a normal part of taking the “next step” for kids as well as adults in whatever the “next step” means for our own comfort zone. For some it is just jumping in the pool, for others it can be trying something scarier like jumping off of the diving board. So, all fear means is that our brains are registering something as danger, and the normal reaction is to have bodily signs, like anxiety, and a fear response like wanting to fight it or run away. That explains the active push back or shying away that you often see.
What all parents have to worry about is not letting avoidance of normal activities become the pattern for a very important reason: avoidance reinforcement. Here is the way it works: they feel afraid, they avoid the activity, as a result of avoidance, they feel relieved. Therefore, avoidance becomes reinforced and a literal pattern gets laid down in the brain to respond to fear that way. Ultimately, that can lead to more and more fear responses and a limited life.
Instead of being allowed to not do anything they are afraid of, we must help them take the baby steps to get there. There are a few important aspects to this:
Validate the fear, in terms of how he feels.
The way you validate fears is to say, “I understand, you feel very afraid, huh? That’s okay. I understand. Scared is okay.”
Normalize the fear.
“Everyone feels scared sometimes. No big deal. Fear is okay.”
Take a step.
“Okay, even if you feel scared, I want you to get in the haircut chair, and I will hold your hand. Let’s ask God to help you do it even if you feel afraid.” Just keep getting him to take the step and then reward the steps when he does. In general, this will work if you are kind, and do not allow a kid to avoid something. Many times, though they will fight it, and you have to take the next step.
“Okay, if you are not going to get in the chair, you can’t play with your sister or do anything else. You have to sit over there until you are ready to try.” The angle here is to make the avoidance not a positive thing and then they will usually try to take the step. When my youngest daughter was younger, she got locked in an airplane bathroom and developed a fear of going into a strange bathroom alone, which made taking her out to dinner a nightmare. So, when she resisted at a restaurant, for example, I told her that she could go to the bathroom by herself, or I would take her home and she would miss the outing. It was her choice. Go to the bathroom or go home.” She cried ferociously, and I said, “Okay, if you don’t want to go to the bathroom, I will take you home.” She cried harder, and harder, and then as I was taking her out the door, she angrily said, “OK!! I will try it!”
When she knew that she was going to have to do it, or it would cost her, she pushed through. And many times, that is exactly what they need, to not be allowed to avoid something because of fear. It is similar to helping most school phobic kids: just drop them off and leave them at school. Unless there is something very serious going on, that is what they need to do: face their fears and get over them.
When they can understand, you can give them a strategy. “First, accept your fear (accept that you are afraid and you find out that feeling that way won’t hurt you). Second, ignore it. Third, do what you are afraid of anyway.” My daughter says that learning to accept her fear and do something anyway has been one of her biggest accomplishments, and she uses the strategy whenever she feels afraid. “It helps you get to do new things,” she now says.
So, remember, fear is normal, but we have to teach children to not allow fear to limit their lives. That takes a little acceptance, a little coaching, and a little prodding. Then, they can learn to embrace life, and not fear it.