Step 3 – Vocalise Fears
The next step in helping your child to manage their fear is to teach them to vocalise their it. Vocalising emotions helps your child process their fears and provides them with the skills to communicate that they are afraid calmly and without acting it out.
This strategy will teach your child to describe their feelings using words. Giving them an important tool to analyse situations that produce fear and to learn to manage their fears and anxieties in logical and positive ways.
Psychology Fun Facts
By around the age of 4 years, children are old enough to talk about their feelings. The brain of a 4 year old has a well-developed emotional centre and a separate language centre. It’s important for children to build links between the emotional centre and the language centre of their brain. A child who has built links between their language centre and emotional centre can move on to use words to manage their feelings. The best way to build links between parts of the brain is to encourage a child to talk about their feelings while another person actively listens.
A child will express their fears using words more quickly if there is a listener who empathises with their emotions. Acknowledging a child’s fear as being an emotional experience that is really happening for them helps a child to develop a sense of security. They will quickly learn that you can both work together to find a way to manage their fear.
When a parent shows empathy, this gives a child a sense they are being emotionally supported. It’s more important to offer emotional support during the mid-childhood years than it is to try and solve a problem or give practical advice. Distressed children are mainly looking for emotional support and empathy. A child who is shown empathy can move on to addressing far more effectively.
Fear is a very contagious emotion. A parent who shows empathy will express an emotion that is similar to their child’s feeling. When a parent shows empathy, this gives the impression that the parent is taking control of the situation and helps a frightened child to see their parent calm themselves down.
A common mistake many parents make is to dismiss their child’s fear because they don’t share the fear themselves. The correct approach is to acknowledge a child’s fear. Dismissing a fear is common when a parent views their child’s fears as being silly, not really frightening or is imagined.
Dismissing a child’s fears increases the risk that a child will internalise their fear and focus more on their fear and become preoccupied about bad things that might happen, rather than learn how to process the emotion of fear by talking about it.
During the mid-childhood years, children can learn that their emotions occur in different levels of intensity. A child who can describe the intensity of their feelings moves away from black and white thinking about emotions, where they either do or do not experience an emotion.
For example, a child who feels afraid, can learn to differentiate how afraid they are using words such as: A bit worried but ok; frightened; or very frightened.
Helping a child to find words that explain how strongly they feel their current emotion helps them learn to react appropriately.
It’s better to acknowledge how intensely a child experiences their fear and begin there rather than to try to persuade them that the intensity of their felt fear is wrong.
This strategy can be used when you and your child are calm. So, make sure you have used the deep breathing technique to help your child calm down first.
Step 1: Be calm and listen
Check that you are calm enough to be able to talk quietly to your child and to listen.
Are you able to just to listen while your child explains their feelings?
Check that you are not preoccupied with your own feelings and thoughts.
Step 2: Show empathy
Your child will be motivated to talk to you about their feelings only when they believe that you will try and understand their feelings rather than to judge them. By showing empathy to your child, you are showing them that you are being supportive, even if you can’t take the problem away.
The key steps when showing empathy are:
- Allow your child to have their own feelings – they don’t have to feel the same as you.
- Don’t try to tell your child what is the correct way to feel in the situation. Instead, recognise the feelings they express.
- Remember your child’s feelings are real to them even when you don’t feel the same.
- Encourage your child to recognise and experience their emotions briefly, then let go of any negative emotions. Showing empathy doesn’t mean that you encourage your child to hold onto negative feelings for a long time.
WeParent Top Tip
Check that you don’t allow your own feelings to dominate the situation, and to over-shadow your child’s feelings. If this does happen, then recognise this and apologise to your child.
Step 3: Acknowledge your child’s fear
Acknowledge that your child is experiencing a strong emotion. Don’t dismiss the emotion or pretend it isn’t happening. The aim at this point is to acknowledge your child’s fear.
So, listen while your child explains their feelings to you. This provides the emotional support which is very important for children at this age. When your child is listened to, they feel understood. When they think that no-one understands them, they will feel more vulnerable and isolated.
Two common pitfalls to avoid are:
- Wanting to solve a problem for your child, so you move quickly into actions instead of listening to your child with empathy. And;
- Being too quick with advice for your child about what they should do next time the problem occurs, instead of listening to them and giving emotional support by empathising.
Step 4: Talking, not acting it out
When your child is frightened or anxious, ask them to explain what happened. Encourage your child to use words, rather than act out their emotions to you.
- Encourage them to use words. It’s important your child tells you what has frightened them using words and not rely on you working it out by mind-reading. Even if you know what has frightened them, give them the time to express it themselves. Talking about feelings is an important step in your child learning to process their own fear.
- Clarify what they’re saying. Once your child has explained to you what happened, summarise it back to them to show you have understood. Allow your child to add in any important details you missed. The small details they add are very important to them.
- Some fears are exaggerated. Be honest with your child about whether you would have been afraid or anxious in the same situation. If their fears are exaggerated, show them you respect their feeling of being frightened, even if you are not frightened yourself.
Step 5: Check the intensity of their feelings
Help your child to tell you how scared or anxious they are feeling using a simple scale of intensity using words.
Ask them to choose out of three levels of how scared they are – low, medium or high. Decide together on words to explain how scared or anxious they feel. E.g. A little bit scary, quite scary and very scary.
Let them know that if their fear is low or medium (or whichever words they have given to each level), you will encourage them to overcome it together. For example, if they’re scared of the dark in their room, you will leave a nightlight on for them.
If their fear is high, let your child know you aren’t going to push them to be exposed to their fear and that you will work together to overcome it over time.
Step 6: Encourage a proportional response
If you consider that your child’s fear is too strong and disproportionate to what’s triggered it, then still acknowledge the intensity of their feelings.
Be honest with your child and let them know that you wouldn’t have found it as scary.
Be aware that your child can have a strong emotional reaction to a small thing and be careful not to embarrass your child if the intensity of their emotion on odd occasion was disproportionate.
If your child often displays a disproportionate intensity of fear, then encourage your child to use more moderate words to describe the intensity of their feelings.
Be careful that your response does not match their disproportionate words.
Step 7: Practise makes perfect
Stick with your approach as your child makes progress. This process will take you some time and practise to master. So, make sure you acknowledge your own progress in this change to your approach.
It takes time for children to learn to manage their reactions of fear. Be patient and keep reminding your child to use their words and to tell you how intense their feelings are. Support your child as they face their fears knowing you are helping them to build positive coping skills that will last a lifetime.
What do I do if my child describes everything as very scary?
Once children have learned different words to describe each level of the intensity of their fear, they can use these words to communicate accurately and avoid using words that exaggerate their fear.
Be careful if your child continues to describe their feelings of fear only using words that reflect high fear. Your child might be forming a habit of dramatising. A child who dramatises is using a word to obtain a reaction rather than to reflect their internal feelings. If your child appears to be dramatising, then make sure you give a more subdued response when your child uses strong words to describe fear, and show more empathy when your child uses words accurately.
If you find your child is persistently telling you they’re very scared about a specific situation, this is unlikely to be dramatising. We recommend you move on to the strategy Dealing With Hazards next and then move on to the Positive Self-Talk strategy.
What if my child keeps talking about past situations?
If your child refers to past situations that produced the same emotion of fear, then help them to focus on the current situation.
If your child is very persistent about talking about past situations then listen then. Point out ways that the current situation is not the same as the past situation, even though both situations arouse similar emotions in your child.
When your child has finished talking about past situations, encourage your child to talk about the current concern.
Where to next?
By now, you will be noticing your child’s progress as they are learning to communicate with you how they’re feeling and report how scared they are. By now you will be seeing your child’s progress as their fear reduces in situations they previously had no ways to manage.
So now it’s time to move on to the next strategy on Step 4 – Positive Self-Talk to continue helping your child to manage their fears and anxieties.