Family Matters Blog: Dealing With Kids’ Fears
By Elaine Sanchez
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 19, 2011 My husband called me down to our laundry room last night to show me water damage from the recent deluge of rain. Between the earthquake, hurricane and ongoing downpours, I would have been surprised if we had walked away from it all damage-free.
But while I was concerned about our waterlogged wall and the potentially hefty repair costs, I was relieved the damage could be easily fixed.
I wish I could say the same about my son.
The combined weather events not only spurred floods and extensive home damage across the Northeast, they also triggered a deep-seated fear of natural disasters in my 8-year-old son.
It started with the earthquake. The power went out at school, and he came home that day crying and shaking with anxiety. I tried to soothe his fears, and my pep talk seemed to help for a while -- until he heard about the impending hurricane. He began to complain constantly of stomachaches and begged me to let him stay home from school.
His mood lifted when the sun came out, but he still obsessively checks the weather to see if a thunderstorm or heavy rain is in the forecast.
Desperate for answers, I spoke to the school counselor, his teacher, and brought him in to the doctor three times. It could be allergies or a virus, she said at each appointment, but we both suspected that anxiety was behind his chronic pain.
She suggested we contact a psychologist to help him work through his fears, and that’s what I plan to do.
Meanwhile, I turned to the Web for some answers and learned that childhood anxiety and fear are much more common than I thought.
According to Kidshealth.org, anxiety and fears are normal and necessary. Dealing with anxieties can help prepare kids to handle the challenging situations of life. However, ongoing anxiety can affect a child’s sense of well-being, the site explained.
Common childhood fears are fear of strangers, heights, darkness, animals, blood, insects and being left alone. Kids also can develop a fear of a specific object or situation after an unpleasant experience, such as a dog bite or an accident, the site said.
Children from military families may have those fears along with a set that’s unique to their circumstances. According to the National Center for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, researchers have found that children with parents who are deployed to war tend to worry more. They may feel their world is less safe and predictable, the site said, or fear that a deployed parent or other loved one may be injured or die.
Kidshealth.org cited the typical signs of anxiety, which sounded very familiar to me after dealing with my son. They include becoming clingy, impulsive or distracted; nervous movements, such as twitches; sleep issues; sweaty hands; accelerated heart rate and breathing; nausea; headaches; and stomachache.
In some kids, anxieties can elevate to phobias, which are fears that are extreme, severe and persistent. Parents should look for patterns, the site recommended, If it’s an isolated incident, don’t overplay it. But if it’s persistent and pervasive, parents should contact their doctor or a mental-health professional.
The site also offers some tips to help parents deal with their kids’ fears, including:
-- Don’t trivialize the fear. Encourage kids to talk about it, which can help take some of the power out of the negative feelings;
-- Never belittle the fear. For example, don’t say, “Don’t be ridiculous. There are no monsters in your closet.” It won’t make the fear go away;
-- Don’t cater to fears. If your child is afraid of dogs, don’t avoid them deliberately, which can reinforce the fear. But be supportive as you approach the feared object or situation; and
-- Teach coping strategies. Try relaxation techniques such as visualization -- floating on a cloud or lying on a beach -- and deep breathing, such as imagining the lungs are balloons and letting them slowly deflate.
I hope, with some help from a professional and these tips, that I can allay my son’s fears. Some things aren’t as easy to fix as a wall, but I’m hoping with time and support, the damage can be undone.
(Note: Military families seeking help can contact their primary care physician, a mental health specialist or call a Military OneSource consultant at 1-800-342-9647.)