Are You Making Your Child’s Irrational Fears Worse?

Are you to blame for your child’s irrational fears?

Everybody has irrational fears, and with young kids it can sometimes feel like they’re scared of just about everything. The things they claim to be scared of often make no sense, come out of nowhere, and are things they’ve done before with no issues. This can be a very frustrating experience as a parent; on top of that, they seem to get more scared when we reassure them!

Children have a lot of of irrational fears because they simply don’t have the depth of experience that we do. They don’t have the data to accurately predict what the outcome of the situation is going to be, what the dangers are, etc. Adults also often miss details children see very clearly. 

Often times, when children express a fear to us, our usual response is to dismiss it. “I’m scared of the dark!” “No! You’re safe in your room, there’s nothing dangerous here, you’re fine, go to sleep.” Our immediate default response is to deny that what they’re fearing is an issue without even stopping to consider if they might have a good reason for being concerned. 

We have to be careful of our actions telling them the exact opposite of what we’ve previously said. We’ll say “look you’re safe in the water!” and then freak out every time walk in the general direction of the waterfront and throw a lifejacket on them and hover. This can be really confusing for a child.

Nighttime fears are one of the worst fears

“You’re safe in your room!” yet every time they wail we bust in going “What’s wrong?!” If they’re safe in their room, running in every time they make even a mildly distressed sound can be alarming and confusing.

As parents, we get over-eager.

Kids get suspicious and go into high alert when we’re overly invested in them doing something that they don’t understand. We usually act that way for reasons that would make no sense to our kids: we have money invested in the activity, there’s a social pressure, someone’s watching them and judging us, or we’re emotionally invested in the outcome of this activity – we may want them to enjoy it like we do, or we want them to start mastering a skill that this activity is involved in.

Our actions do not match our words more often than not.
We speak safety to them, often over-confidently, but our actions don’t follow the confidence of our words. Kids pick that disconnect up. If they have to choose between trusting your words and trusting your actions, children will trust your actions every time.

What does this mean? It means that if your child is struggling with irrational fears, you need to take a good hard look at what you’re doing to reinforce those fears. 

Take the “scared of the room” fear as an example. You’ve reinforced to them to believe that there may potentially be a reason that they’re unsafe. They don’t think about you being worried about them puking, or getting their arm stuck between the mattress and the wall, or that you’re worried that if you don’t respond you’ll destroy their attachment to you (or whatever it is compelling you to repeatedly go back into the room). They just know that they don’t feel safe, and when they scream, you come running, which must mean that they aren’t actually safe like you told them they were. Actions speak louder than words. Your actions firmly convince them that they aren’t safe; you’ve given them a reason to be scared.

Take swimming lessons for an example:

We take them to a pool, put them in floaters, and hand them to a stranger (the swim instructor). And then we get over-eager. 

We don’t give them a chance to really even meet this person, and we’re like “go on. You’re safe! Listen! Do what they tell you to! Don’t run, you could fall in the water! Why are you scared of the instructor? Do what they tell you to do and you’ll be safe!” All of this has undertones of “I spent money on these lessons, and I really want you to learn to swim so that you’re genuinely safe” but they don’t know that’s why we’re so invested. They just know that we’re over-eager. We innately know that we aren’t totally safe in water, and we’re acting weirdly out of character. The harder we try, the more they resist and the more scared they get. 

My oldest, Logan, was freaking out during his first lesson. To make him feel safe, I had to project confidence with my actions. So I calmly got him dressed, then I changed into a swimsuit too, even though they weren’t parented lessons. 

I sat at the edge of the pool with Logan, let him sit on my lap and told him “you don’t need to get in, but you need to put your feet in and watch.” So he did. During the next lesson I let him sit on my lap, but said he needed to stand in the pool for 5 minutes. For the next lesson, he stood in the pool for 10 minutes. And for the following lesson, he stood in the pool for 20 minutes. During the final lesson, he stood in the pool and I backed away from the edge. To my shock, he actually let the instructor hold him while he kicked at the end of the lesson. 

We went from total refusal to participating in about 6 weeks. Did I just throw $100 down the drain on lessons? Some people may have looked at it that way, but I got him in the pool and he had a positive experience. It took Logan six tries to pass that level – which was painful – but he’s passed every level since in one go, and he’s now a complete fish! 

Many parents would have gotten frustrated with their children, for not learning, fearing the water and “wasting their money”. It’s an easy mistake to make, if you aren’t familiar with stress concepts. 

A lot of parents are doing this with masks. We’re getting over-eager about our children’s mask use, and it’s freaking them out. Instead we should focus on slowly introducing the change for short periods of time with firm boundaries.

The easiest way to get rid of your child’s irrational fears is to project confidence with your actions. 

Think about “If they are truly safe, how would I act?” Consider what is driving your actions. What are your concerns? Do they have anything to do with your child’s safety or are they motivated by concerns over finances, emotions, or judgment of others. 

Then consider how your child might perceive your actions since they don’t have any knowledge of those adult concerns.

I hope that gives you either some ideas of where you can make adjustments, or affirms that you’re on the right path. I know often when you are projecting confidence and they’re freaking out that it can feel like you’re utterly failing and doing something wrong. If you have been doing the right thing, but they’re still testing the waters – stay the course; it’ll pay off eventually. 

If you want to continue this conversation, I invite you to chat with us in the Parenting Posse.

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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