Fears of children, 10 infallible principles to overcome childhood anxiety

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Girls and boys who are afraid of water or the dark. Reluctant to try something new. Terrified of making mistakes or being alone. Restless, agitated, nervous, hyperactive, clumsy, awkward, rigid.

The fear that can assail the little ones of the house has different faces: it can have the appearance of a monster in the closet or under the bed, hide in shyness, manifest itself in anxiety to go to school or spend hours away from the eyes of parents. And mothers and fathers know this well, and at times they risk sinking into frustration and being overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness when their reassurances don't work.

Lawrence Cohen collected in the book The secret fears of children (Feltrinelli, 2022) useful advice to help one's children in difficulty, starting from the assumption that facing childhood fears with rational reassurance is not the most effective way: they often fail in the face of the "logic of fear". Instead, it is important to "offer the building blocks of security: love, empathy and acceptance".

In this article


  • Show empathy, attention, listening 
  • Teach children how to 'cool' emotions
  • Balance patience and acceptance with a gentle nudge
  • Do frighteningly fun and safe things every day
  • Play and laugh together! Do pillow fights
  • Mirror their emotions by focusing on what is
  • Help the children to get out of troubling thoughts by staying anchored to their body
  • Be the calm 'second chick' that instills confidence
  • Promote tolerance of uncertainty, risk and discomfort
  • Focus on every aspect of life affected by anxiety

1) Show empathy, attention and listening

The parent-child relationship is a fundamental resource, because it "helps children feel safe, confident and happy". After all, according to the author of the book, one of the greatest tasks of parents is to give "emotional recharges", offering attention, encouragement and listening. That's why mom and dad should make the effort to ask themselves what their son feels when he feels so anxious and agitated, avoiding belittling or ridiculing his fears and, consequently, his state of mind.

"Who are we to say that a child's concern is ridiculous?" says the psychologist. "Sure, the monsters under the bed aren't real, but the child's fear is." How many times, on the other hand, does it happen to repeat to children that it is not worth worrying about so little and that there is no reason to be afraid? Cohen urges parents to refrain from judging the legitimacy of their children's fears. Because all fears are valid, they are the expression of the feelings they are experiencing. (Read also: Children's fears)

2) Teach children how to 'cool down' emotions

Fear is essential to face more or less unpleasant and risky situations. Without its alarm function, in fact, we would not run, we would not hide or ask for help if we were in danger. It is, in short, "like the sense of Spider-Man, that he warns us when something is wrong". Excessive fear, however, throws the "safety system" into a tailspin, a term that Cohen uses to describe the mind's response to danger.

And particularly anxious children live in a perennial state of alert (what if lightning strikes the house? And if others laugh at me?) And they don't seem to notice the signs of a no-brainer (it looked like a snake, but in reality it was just a stick), so they can't shake off fear and have a hard time calming down.


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This triggers a defense mechanism, of "avoidance", which triggers the "paradox of anxiety": Anxious children continually strive to avoid anything that causes restlessness, but this ends up increasing the anxiety even more. To help children experience the whirlwind of emotions in which they can be overwhelmed more consciously, Cohen suggests resorting to the metaphor of the "flame of emotions", explaining that every emotion (the flame) begins with a spark, which can be a thought or event. "The flame metaphor is especially perfect for anxious children, who often treat their feelings as if they are too hot to handle. But luckily, they can learn to throw water on flames." Water is anything that can cool the emotion: count to ten, breathe deeply, think of something different, jump or draw. (Read also: A serene and loved child, therefore more intelligent)

3) Balance patience and acceptance with a gentle nudge

Understanding and accepting the state of mind of children is the first step in being able to encourage them to deal with what frightens them. Many anxious children, for example, need time to familiarize themselves with new people or situations because they are afraid of anything unfamiliar. Throwing them into the fray in the belief that this will cut their teeth is not productive: "The nudge must be delicate." So, if they find it hard to make friends (in the case of social phobia), try inviting other children to the house: it will be easier to start breaking the ice in the environment in which they feel protected and safe.

And if in the park they find it hard to break away from you, don't deny them the opportunity to be in your arms or by your side before you find the courage to play with others. Children need "a loving ally as they take even the smallest step". Parent support, in other words, is essential to venture out where they don't feel completely comfortable and gain confidence. But it takes a lot of patience, because "internalizing the sense of security may take a long time." 

Read also: How to understand children's whims

4) Do frighteningly fun and safe things every day

Boldness and courage can be trained and developed, and having "fun, safe and a little scary adventures, just enough to be exciting", can be helpful in defying fear. "Children, in fact, to reprogram their anxious brain, need to experience first-hand that life can be scary, safe and fun at the same time". And they can experience it through small daily challenges. "For many children - for example - it is easier to find this confidence in outdoor physical adventures, such as climbing rocks or jumping small streams." (Read also: Children and fears, give space to their emotions)

5) Play and laugh together! Do pillow fights

Play is one of the best ways to connect with children. So let's get down to earth! This is the slogan that Cohen uses to stimulate parent-child complicity. "Many problems - he argues - could be avoided or solved if only we placed ourselves at the child's eye level and did something together". In particular, green light for rowdy physical games, such as a pillow fight or a wrestling match.

Of course, let them win, so the children feel physically and emotionally powerful and gain confidence. Another way to express and overcome your fears is to play the role reversal.

For example, if your child is terrified of going to the doctor, play pretend that he is the doctor while you are the frightened patient. Or, playing with puppets and soft toys, stage the experiences that make him nervous. "The game - he concludes - causes laughter. Laughing relieves the tension brought by fear. And closeness helps children to recover after an upset". 

Read also: Games for children

6) Mirror their emotions, focusing on what is

"Mirroring all emotions is essential for children to learn who they are and what they feel - writes the author -. And it teaches that emotions can be shared and understood. "The best way to convey this message is, according to the psychotherapist, to imitate, exaggerate, their facial expressions, giving a name to the emotion that aroused it.

According to Cohen, then, so that the child is not overwhelmed by negative emotions, it is essential to help him focus on "what is" and not on what could happen and on the frightening hypotheses about the future. How? Try meditation and mindfulness, "which even small children can learn. There is no need for a training course" assures Cohen: you just have to start breathing deeply while paying attention to your breathing.

Read also: Trichotillomania: what it is and how it manifests itself

7) Help children to get out of troubling thoughts by staying anchored to their body

Cohen suggests a wide variety of strategies relaxation.

For very anxious children

To offer immediate relief to very anxious children, focus on physical comfort: "Talk less and pamper more". "Try rocking, humming or giving a gentle massage".

For children paralyzed with fear

For children who are literally paralyzed with fear, encourage them to scream, jump and shake their whole body. "This allows you to safely get rid of some blocked feelings and this can reduce your anxiety level quickly. Making noise, shaking or fidgeting may embarrass some children, so shake with them, or better yet, do it first to get them. laugh at you. But as always, make sure they don't feel cheated. "

For children who scream and cry

If children, on the other hand, express their mood by screaming, sweating, crying, "they need your loving and calm presence to slowly recover a feeling of relief." And while it can be difficult to witness their outburst without doing anything, "strive not to silence the children, and to harass them to put it into words."

For children who have panic attacks

When, however, they are not in a panic attack, involve them in a physical activity, such as running or hopping on the spot. "The key is to make the body work a lot in a rhythmic activity".

Also try a hot bath, or have them listen to sweet music and invite them to draw their fear. Drawing engages the body and mind and invites you to pull a disturbing image out of your head. "You can ask the children to draw funny pictures of their anxiety or the superpowers they will use to defeat it. Putting a fear on paper can ease its hold on the child. Or you could propose a game in which they defeat whatever frightens them." For example, a pile of pillows represents fear, and they drop it. 

Read also: Relaxing games for children

8) Be the calm, confident 'second chick'

When children are anxious, they see the world through the filter of danger, so everything seems threatening. So if the baby is the frightened chick, the parent can help him see the world differently by being the second calm chick, the one who is not afraid, who instills security, protects and suggests ways to keep anxious thoughts at bay. But first try to understand it and only then reassure it. "Children feel better reassured after their feelings are validated. And the best and easiest way to validate their feelings is to listen to what they have to say. Because when they feel understood, they are more likely to embrace our reassurance. ".

So, if your child is afraid of going to sleep (after all, being alone and being in the dark are two of the most common childhood fears), do not dismiss his fear hastily, because you know there is no reason to be afraid. "Anxious children are unable to cling to this comforting idea." The advice is: talk less and listen more.

Cohen also sends a message to parents who "deliberately scare children, for example about running into the street or kidnappers, and then are surprised if they are afraid to cross the street or to stay at home with a babysitter. Every time," he explains. - that you share a danger with a child, make sure you also share solutions to manage that danger. "

9) Promote tolerance of uncertainty, risk and discomfort

To overcome one's fears, it is necessary to face them: avoidance, in fact, is a central problem in managing anxiety. But that doesn't mean pushing a scared child into the pool where he doesn't touch. "Often this approach backfires, creating a much deeper fear, as it weakens the child's sense of security and trust and the trustworthiness of adults."

"To promote tolerance of uncertainty, risk and discomfort," Cohen's recipe predicts parents present and reassuring. If, for example, anxiety stops your child, who doesn't want to cross the threshold of the room where a schoolmate's party is held, encourage him, yes, but reassuring him with cuddles and kind words. Banned awkward attempts at encouragement like "Don't be a whiner", "Just do it, without all this whining and whining." Better to opt for "I'll hold your hand as long as you want, until you're ready". "Personally - says the psychologist - I don't think that a hard push offers real inner strength and self-confidence".

10) Focus on every aspect of life affected by anxiety

To learn how to manage it, you have to learn to know it. Cohen thus summarizes the various forms that the anguish caused by childhood anxiety can take.

  • Fast heart rate, shortness of breath, tense muscles, stomach cramps, tremors and sweats, cold or warm skin, frequent urination, gastrointestinal upset or incontinence.
  • Anxious, pessimistic thoughts, worries (what if something bad happens? If only I had done something different. I know my teacher hates me) that end up recurring.
  • Cognitive rigidity: fear of risks, of everything new, a strong reaction to changes in routine.
  • Nervous tics: nail biting, hair messing, clothes sucking.
  • Emotional state of alarm, apprehension, panic, always feeling on guard.
  • Fears of specific things - real or imagined - like dogs, bugs or monsters under the bed.
  • Tendency to perceive the world as generally threatening or dangerous.
  • Tendency to avoid anything that can arouse fear or anxiety and extreme emotional upset when it is impossible to avoid.
  • Shyness, indecision, perfectionism, an attempt to have absolute control over one's environment.
  • Growing demands for reassurance which, when offered, is often rejected.
Read also: How to motivate children to tidy up

Questions and answers

How to help children manage anxiety? 

Show empathy, attention and listening and teach them to "cool" their emotions.

Is it possible to teach a very anxious child to tolerate uncertainty and risk?

Yes. Promote tolerance in the child towards uncertainty, risk and discomfort, but always be present and reassuring parents.

  • anxiety
  • 3-5 children years
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