I’m wondering if you have any suggestions for me. I have a daughter, 27 months old, who, somehow has become traumatized by the Halloween festivities. We do not decorate with Halloween decor, but she learned the word “scary” and now EVERYTHING is scary. She is almost debilitated by it at times. Anything from a hair bow in her room, to a jacket, to an old fabric pumpkin face that we did as a craft (that she previously enjoyed). I try to gently talk her through it and remove the offending object, if possible. But I wonder if it’s just a phase, or if she might benefit from some kind of counseling, even though she is very young. Her language skills are pretty advanced, in my opinion. What do you recommend for someone so young? She’s starting to have trouble going to bed now even though she has a good lamp in her room.
Fears in children that age are very common. In fact, most children will have some kind of specific fear or phobia that won’t immediately disappear. However, you don’t need to be scared of your child’s fear.
Sometimes a parent’s anxiety around their child’s own anxiety can actually make things worse. Amy Cluff, therapist and child therapy expert, says that “sometimes parents become so preoccupied with removing everything that scares or upsets the child that it unintentionally sends a signal to the child that those things are actually dangerous when, in reality, they are not.”
Check your own reactivity around her fear and make sure you’re managing your own distress so she doesn’t pick up on the message that something must really be wrong. We want our children to be happy, free, and enjoy a safe childhood. When they show signs of fear and anxiety, it’s natural for us to scramble to make everything comfortable for them.
Instead, I recommend you leave everything like it is and let her know that things aren’t dangerous. You can show her this by comforting her, holding her, and showing her that these things aren’t harmful. Over time, she’ll eventually recognize that she’s safe and move forward. If you organize her entire world around removing every potential threat, she’ll learn that she’s fragile and can’t handle being uncomfortable.
Children need to face their fears with the loving support of their parents. Removing those fears every time a child flinches in distress only teaches them that they can’t handle the unpredictability of the world. Obviously, some dangers that are harmful to their physical and emotional safety need to be removed. For example, I wouldn’t encourage you to have her watch a horror movie so she can learn to handle scary things.
Her fears make sense to her, but you can gently reassure her that she’s safe and those things won’t hurt her. You can support her by staying close to her when she’s afraid and trust that she will eventually see that these things aren’t a real threat. As you calmly connect to her and allow her to experience the discomfort in the presence of these triggers, she’ll develop more resilience and eventually move forward a stronger kid.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic and currently serves on the high council of the St. George, Utah young single adult second stake. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
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Michael PetersonNovember 14, 2014
One thing I found helpful is to make the scary thing funny. As an example, both of my children got scared of tornadoes at different times when they were young after seeing news features about them. I sat down with each one and we would imagine things that would make a tornado funny, like if it was moving over a hot pan and it would bounce up and down and say "Ow! Eek! Ouch! Ooo! Yeow! Ouch! Ouch!" in a high and funny voice. It made my son giggle and he's never been scared of tornadoes every since. With my daughter, it was imagining that there is a huge tornado and it is making enormous farting noises. It's hard to be scared of a tornado that farts. It made her laugh and she hasn't been afraid of them ever since. The trick is that it has to make them laugh at the thought of it. It's impossible to laugh at something and be scared of it at the same time.
Trish MercerNovember 14, 2014
Several of my nine children have been scared at this age, so we turn it into something funny. Labeling it differently, and having an exuberant attitude, helps the child see it differently as well. For example, just the other day a large bag caught in our tree, terrifying my 34 month old son. But I said, "Oh, funny! It's waving like a flag! Funny!" After stating that a few times and laughing, he started laughing too, and rushed to show all of his siblings the scary/funny bag. Attitude is everything, as he says here. Keep yours light and silly, and she'll copy it.