Fears can actually help a child cope with periods of rapid new learning

Parent Q&A

September 20, 1998|By T. Berry Brazelton, M.D. | T. Berry Brazelton, M.D.,NEW YORK TIMES SPECIAL FEATURES

A 3-year-old boy is afraid of the dark. A 2-year-old girl cries whenever she comes across a barking dog.

Fears and phobias surface in children at predictable times, and they are perfectly normal. In fact, they can be of help as children are learning how to handle aggressive feelings.

Fears tend to crop up at periods of new and rapid learning. A child's new independence and abilities throw him off balance. Fears can call up the energy needed to readjust.

Being afraid produces a surge of adrenalin and a kind of quick learning about how to control the fear. As a child handles his fearfulness, he learns how to contain himself. Afterward, he may even sense that he has reached a milestone. He may say, "I used to be afraid of that. I'm not anymore."

But if the child is overwhelmed by his fearful reaction, this constructive learning will not occur. It's important for parents to make sure this doesn't happen. Though parents cannot eradicate a child's fears, they can comfort him, help him to take them less seriously and help him to learn from them.

This can be difficult, partly because fears in a child may call up unresolved fears in his parents. All parents recognize the scariness of ghosts or monsters. When a child awakens screaming about the "monster in my room," his parents remember their own fear of monsters. They are likely to overdo the comforting. He senses their anxiety and it adds to his.

On the following nights, the "monsters" begin to take a more and more realistic shape. As the child's description becomes more vivid, he captures his parents' imagination and they become increasingly mired in his fear. By their overreaction, they lend the fear a kind of credibility and make it less likely that he can handle it for himself.

If parents can see that they are overreacting and recognize that fears are part of a learning process, they will be better able to help the child.

Many fears crop up in children between the ages of 3 and 6. As a child learns about his own aggressive feelings, he becomes fearful of aggression in others. As he learns about his burgeoning feelings of independence, he needs fears to help him master them.

The widening world of a 3-year-old may bring about fears of fire engines with loud noises or dogs who bark. Phobias about going to strange places often surface.

These may have reality behind them, and a parent needs to try to help - through preparation and understanding, without expecting reassurances to wipe out the fears.

bTC Parents can talk to a child about the feelings they know she has and prepare her for the surge of fear she'll feel when she hears a fire engine or barking dog. She'll also need to learn how to become aggressive in safe ways - such as through sports.

The first step in helping a child handle fears is to listen carefully and respect whatever she tells you about them. Help her see that it is natural to be afraid. Then reassure her that what now seems scary can be handled and that as she gets older, she will learn to overcome the fear.

Talk about your own fears at her age and how you overcame them. You may even suggest that she ask her friends how they handle their fears.

Support the child as she struggles to find ways to handle her fears.

Let her regress for a short time, to cuddle her "lovey" and be a baby. Help the child understand the reasons behind her fears - such as the fact that she's trying to learn about new and rather scary situations.

When she finally conquers her fears, point the change out to her so she can learn from her success. Commenting on her achievement will mark a pattern. You can refer back to it when other, new fears arise.

Questions or comments should be addressed to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, care of The New York Times Syndication Sales Corp., 122 E. 42nd St., New York, N.Y. 10168. Questions of general interest will be answered in this column; Dr. Brazelton regrets that unpublished letters cannot be answered individually.

Pub Date: 9/20/98

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