Living with Children: What to say to a fearful child

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A stalwart friend recently called my attention to an online article titled “Two Things to Say to a Child Returning to In-Person School (& Two You Should Avoid).”

I am choosing to provide counterpoint because the advice contained therein is prime example of the problematic babble that constitutes most web-based parenting advice, which may be why the author identified herself only as “editor.”

According to a child psychiatrist who was consulted on the article, parents should ask their anxious kids, “What are you afraid of?”

No, that is not what one should ask an anxious child. The article claims that this question will open the door to dialogue. The fact is that a question of that sort, asked of an anxious child, will lead otherwise rational adults down one rabbit hole after another. Children do not have the mental or linguistic skills necessary to properly represent their feelings. Questions about their feelings, therefore, are likely to set off anxiety cascades.

The more one talks to a child about fears, the more intense and intractable the fears become. That is why, when parents ask my advice about a child who is experiencing, say, bedtime fears, I recommend that they stop talking to the child about his bedtime fears.

The parents are trying to reassure the child, but (a) you cannot talk a child out of thinking irrationally and (b) talking will make the fears worse. Counterintuitive, perhaps, but true.

When a child is obviously anxious about something — an upcoming event, for example — the rule of thumb for adult caretakers is “Make Authoritative Statements.” Using the above example, a parent might say, “Being afraid of the dark is something all children experience. I certainly did when I was a child, and you may have noticed that I am okay. Your job is to go to sleep. The best way to do that is to force yourself to think about something you enjoy, like going to camp. Just remember, it’s my job to take care of you and I know how to best do that. Now, good night and sleep tight.”

The child is not going to end the conversation; so, you must. Acknowledge the fear, reassure the child that you are in control of matters within your home, and then exit, stage right.

What if the child begins screaming bloody murder? Force yourself to think about something you really enjoy doing, like dropping your child off at camp. If screaming bloody murder for a couple of hours is what the child needs to do to realize that his fears are not going to come true, then scream he must.

“I don’t think I can do that, John,” a parent tells me. If that’s the case, then the child’s fears may last months, even years, as opposed to a week or two.

There is no solution to a child’s fears that is going to turn them off instantly; no magic words that will result in the child saying, “Thanks, Dad, for explaining that so brilliantly! Why, I was more afraid than I’ve ever been a minute ago and now I don’t even remember what I was afraid of!”

In short, the child needs an adult in the room, but not an adult who will stay in the room indefinitely. That’s your job.

[Family psychologist John Rosemond: johnrosemond.com, parentguru.com. Copyright 2021, John K. Rosemond]