Responding to Young Children's Fears

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Noah was a four-year-old who had been enrolled in my preschool for a few months. We spent a lot of time together and I had established a very warm rapport with him. Because of this, I was shocked when I entered the classroom one morning and he ran from me screaming, "Stay away from me!" His terror was so intense I had to leave the room until another teacher could calm him down and determine the problem. The problem, it seems, were my new shoes. They were black, and according to Noah, witches wear black shoes!

Fears of witches, ghosts, bogeymen and other imaginary creatures reaches a peak in the preschool years. Whereas as younger children are commonly afraid of everyday things such as dogs or storms; preschoolers tend to develop fears of the imaginary or unreal.

The development of these fears is actually evidence of maturing cognitive development. The child is now more creative and imaginative. And yet, we also know their perspective is still developing. Children in this age range are not very logical in their thinking and in fact have difficulty distinguishing fact from fantasy. In a young child’s mind, objects can take on life-like characteristics. A baby doll really can feel sad and the tree outside can use its branches to intentionally knock on the bedroom window!

It is important both parents and caregivers of young children can understand their fears and respond in an appropriate manner. First and foremost, the adult needs to show respect and acceptance of the child’s fears. These feelings are very real to a child and admonishing or downplaying a child’s concerns do not help a child feel calm or learn to cope with their strong feelings. Forcing a child to confront their fear or pushing them into a fearful situation is often counter-productive. You can serve as both a role model and a guide in helping young children. A slow sympathetic approach is best.

When Noah was so scared that morning, I immediately removed the source of the fear; me. My co-teacher was then reassuring and comforting as she helped him regain control to the point he could tell her what was wrong. She then asked him if he would be frightened if I returned to the room as long as I removed my shoes. He said no, so I returned wearing just socks. I was then able to sit with him and ask if he was still uncomfortable. He made it clear I was only a scary witch if I was wearing the black shoes. Next I asked him if the shoes alone were scary. With gentle encouragement, I took him to the hall to see the shoes where I had left them. I challenged him to talk about how the shoes could transform someone into a witch. "What if a man put them on?" " What if we painted them red?" I gave him control to find out how this could be less scary for him, and he had the idea he should put the shoes on! "Because," he said, "I know I am not a witch". Of course, the shoes brought upon no transformation in him. He then agreed that I was not a witch before the shoes and was able to see they would not change me either. I was then able to put my shoes back on.

I let Noah control the rate of approaching and exploring his fear. At no time did I tell him he was silly or that big boys know better. I will admit that if at anytime he had became anxious or fearful again, I was prepared to back off and may have considered decorating my shoes red for the day. On this day, Noah gained some autonomy and confidence in coping with other fears he may have. He learned that his feelings were important and valued. He learned how to use words to express his emotions. And, of course, he learned not all witches wear black shoes!