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Grade-schoolers and fear
Your child may have been afraid of fantastical things when he was younger (like ghosts or aliens), but now his fears may be more rooted in reality. A fear of the dark may persist, and some grade-schoolers remain afraid of animals, insects, or forces of nature (like fires, thunderstorms, and earthquakes). These fears are likely to diminish throughout elementary school as your child learns more about the world.
But new fears might surface as your child grows more knowledgeable and experienced. For example, news stories about death, crime, violence, war, or natural disasters can cause anxiety. Your child might also worry about a serious illness, accident, or death in the family. A child who is especially shy or sensitive may become afraid of strangers or social situations such as birthday parties, summer camp, or even school.
What you can do to ease your grade-schooler's fears
Most of your grade-schooler's fears will pass as she becomes more secure in her world. In the meantime, you can help your child learn to manage her fears, but don't expect a quick fix – it can take months or years to completely conquer a fear. These strategies may help:
Acknowledge her fear. Don't minimize your child's worries just because they seem trivial to you. Instead, let her know that you understand she's afraid, and remind her that everyone is afraid sometimes. Your reassurance and support will demonstrate that it's okay to have fears and that there are helpful ways to deal with them.
"Try to depersonalize the fear by getting your child to talk about what's making her scared," says William Coleman, a behavioral pediatrician at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. "Fears won't go away if you ignore them."
Don't try to convince your child that she shouldn't be afraid. For example, if she's scared she won't make friends at camp, you'll only make her more upset if you say, "Don't worry, everyone makes friends at camp." Instead, try saying, "I understand that you're anxious about making friends. Let's talk about ways to make that easier for you."
Explain, expose, and explore. Since your grade-schooler is better able to express herself now, simply talking over her fears can help. (Just avoid doing this at bedtime, when kids are more likely to feel fearful.) Expressing worries in words can make scary things seem less troubling.
Or, consider confronting a particular fear together, from a safe distance or in a familiar context. Your child might have an easier time getting over a fear of dogs if she has the chance to get to know a mellow mutt in the neighborhood.
Books and videos are a great way to address fears from a safe distance. If your child is frightened because someone in the family is ill, read a book about a child coping with a similar situation. Just be careful not to expose your child to books, shows, or movies that are too scary, gory, or otherwise age-inappropriate.
Teach self-comforting skills. You'll help your child more in the long run if you help her practice calming herself instead of always rushing to soothe her. When she's upset or agitated, encourage her to take deep breaths or sing a favorite song. By redirecting her attention away from the object of her fear, she'll regain her physical composure and can then focus on getting her feelings in check.
Praise every small step and focus your attention on her accomplishments rather than her fears. "Some kids – like adults – do better with distraction, others with more information," says Kristi Alexander, a pediatric psychologist at Alliant International University in San Diego. "Try to figure out what works best for your child and have her use that strategy when she's afraid."
Don't be judgmental. Never make your child feel immature for being afraid, and never belittle her in front of her peers. Offer empathy instead. Tell her you can see that she's really worried about the first day of school, and then brainstorm a plan to help her manage.
Talk with your child in a calm, matter-of-fact way about what's troubling her, and assure her that you're confident she can overcome her fears. Ask, "What do you think might help you feel less scared?" By encouraging her involvement, you'll strengthen her coping skills.
What to watch out for
Although it's normal for your child to have some fears, he might need help if his worries are intense or obsessive. If your grade-schooler's fears are interfering with his normal daily activities – like if he won't go to summer camp because he's afraid of other kids, or if he sits on the side of the pool during swim lessons because he's afraid of the water – talk to his doctor or a therapist who specializes in working with children. It's especially important to seek help if his fears get worse over time: He could have an anxiety disorder or a phobia (an intense and persistent irrational fear) and would benefit from professional treatment.
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