When they are babies, children rely on parents and primary carers to help make them feel safe. But as they grow and become more independent, their exciting exploration of the world also means they develop fears of the world beyond. This serves a protective role and helps little ones learn to look after themselves. But these worries can bring with them powerful feelings. Our role as adults is to help children manage these emotions – and put them in perspective – so they don’t loom larger in their minds than they need to.
Tanith Carey, author of “What’s My Child Thinking? Practical Child Psychology” with clinical psychologist, Dr Angharad Rudkin, talks about how to understand some of the most common anxieties of childhood – and how best to respond.
“I’m scared of the dark”
Fear of the dark when it’s time for lights out at bedtime affects about half of children up to the age of five. When dealing with this worry, it helps to imagine how darkness looks from a child’s perspective. When a room goes black, all the toys and objects a child is used to having around them suddenly disappear and even look as if they have been ‘swallowed up.’ When an adult switches the light off, a child also feels suddenly out of control of their surroundings. For a few seconds, until their retinas adjust, it can feel as if they are blind, making some kids panic and dread this moment. Another reason children don’t like the dark is because they worry they can no longer see the way out to the door to find a grown-up if they feel upset or lonely. So they can feel ‘trapped’ by the darkness around them.
How to respond
During the day, talk about the child’s fear and listen out for any signs it’s rooted in other worries, whether it’s losing a parent or something they’ve seen on-screen which they don’t understand. Listen without dismissing their fears.
Together, read stories in which the child is the main character and overcomes a worry, like darkness, to help them process their fears during daylight.
Allow some control. Give them a dim nightlight, which gives off a warm glow and which they can adjust when it’s time to turn the main light off. That way they will still be able to make out the outline of the room, the things around them and also see where the door is if they want to go and find a grown-up.
“I’ve had a bad dream”
Although we often wish children sweet dreams at bedtime, most will have the occasional nightmare. Children tend to have more nightmares than adults, partly because they have more deep REM sleep, when dreams take place.
Their developing imagination, and the fact they are finding out so much more about the world, but not necessarily understanding it all, means they may also be processing their discoveries during the day at night, and these worries can sometimes take the form of scary monsters in their dreams.
At this stage, a child may not yet understand that a dream is something that only they can see. They may believe that other people have exactly the same dreams – and may not realise that what happened in a nightmare didn’t happen in real life.
How to respond:
If the child wants to tell you about a dream, listen without interruption. If they talk about their emotions with a grown-up, it will allow a child to process their experiences during the daylight hours when it feels less disturbing. Validate any fears they have. Don’t say, “That doesn’t sound that scary!” or “What is there to be afraid of?” Instead say, “That does sound frightening!” or, “I know other children worry about that too.”
Without dismissing how they feel, at the same time explain dreams are not meant to be deliberately terrifying. They are like a film running through their brains where the normal rules of life don’t apply.
Discuss how in some cartoon films a child will have seen dreams and they are like a pretend place where anything can happen and where they are in control. Help them see dreams as a sign that their imagination is getting bigger and more daring.
You can also help a child manage their nightmares by suggesting they draw out what they saw. Or see if they’d like to pretend to be the scary monster during their make-believe games so they can play out their fears.
“Will you get ill from Covid-19?”
Before the age of three, most young children don’t have an understanding of being ill, beyond their own experience of having a mild illness like a cold or chickenpox.
At this age, rather than be afraid of the illness itself, they are more likely to respond to a change in the behaviour of the adults around them – or regress by throwing more tantrums.
If they see adults being anxious, they may respond by regressing, using more baby-talk or wetting the bed.
From the age of about four or five, young children also engage in ‘magical thinking’ in which they believe they are the centre of the world and so they are responsible for anything that happens. So they may imagine if you get Covid, it’s something they did.
How to respond:
If they are asking you questions about Covid-19, a child will by now have picked up that there’s an illness adults are worrying about. If they seem concerned, ask what they’ve heard about the virus or how it spreads to clear up any misunderstandings.
If they ask the question “Will you die from it?’ tell them that you will one day die of something, as everyone does.
But make it clear you don’t expect that to happen to you for a long time and by then, they’ll be grown-up.
Talk about the things you are doing to keep yourself strong to defend your body against it, whether it’s eating healthily, getting sleep or taking daily exercise.
Stay patient and keep answering their queries about the virus. Read the most authoritative sources of information so you answer calmly until their curiosity is satisfied.
Most of all, children will be taking their cues from you, so process your own fears with another adult, so you can stay calm and rational.
Without making them feel responsible, or anxious, help them feel more in control by telling them they are part of a big team winning the war on the virus.
Tell them: “Lots of people are catching this germ – but for most it’s like a really bad cold.
“Scientists and doctors are learning more about it all the time and most people who catch it get better.”
Help them get the virus in perspective too. Explain that there are good germs in our bodies – as well as bad ones and this is just an especially tough one we are all working hard, together, to beat.
“What’s My Child Thinking: Practical Child Psychology for Modern Parents”, by Tanith Carey with Dr Angharad Rudkin, is on sale now at all good booksellers, published by DK books.
About the author:
Tanith Carey writes books which offer a lucid analysis of the most pressing challenges facing today’s parents and childcarers – by looking at the latest research and presenting achievable strategies for how to tackle them. Her books have been translated into 15 languages, including German, French, Arabic, Chinese and Turkish. Her 2019 publications are “What’s My Child Thinking? Practical Child Psychology for Modern Parents” and “The Friendship Maze: How to help your child navigate their way to positive and happier friendships”. Tanith Carey writes books which offer a lucid analysis of the most pressing challenges facing today’s parents and childcarers – by looking at the latest research and presenting achievable strategies for how to tackle them. Her books have been translated into 15 languages, including German, French, Arabic, Chinese and Turkish. Her 2019 publications are “What’s My Child Thinking? Practical Child Psychology for Modern Parents” and “The Friendship Maze: How to help your child navigate their way to positive and happier friendships”.
An award-winning journalist, Tanith also writes on parenting for the Daily Telegraph, The Times, the Guardian and the Daily Mail, in which she also serialises and promotes her books. She is also a regular presence on TV and radio programmes, including the NBC Today Show in the US and Radio Four Woman’s Hour and You and Yours.
Her full bio can be found on her website at www.cliomedia.co.uk and you can follow her on social media channels @tanithcarey.