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Thursday 17 April 2014

How can I help my son overcome his fears?

I have two young boys, aged six and nine. My older boy had never been afraid of the dark and had never had trouble going to sleep or settling into bed prior to last Halloween. Since then, however, when he is getting ready to go to bed he starts complaining that his tummy is sore and that he can see scary images in his mind and he can't stop thinking about them.

We tried to help him by telling him that all the scary stuff was just silly stories that are not true and that he is safe in his house and his bed and that no one could harm him. We reassure him that he can come in to us during the night if he needs to. Unfortunately, it got worse again after this week in school, as the boys in his class have been talking about scary stories they have heard or have watched on YouTube. My son does not like hearing these stories as he visualises them vividly. I am terrified that these fears will have a lasting effect on his mental health. He is a very sensitive and emotional boy (takes after his mammy) and we have always had a fear that he would be a target for bullies as he is so soft. I would really appreciate any advice you could give about how to help him be a bit more resilient.

Being afraid in response to hearing scary stories (or seeing scary movies) is a good and natural thing. I guess the stories couldn't be called "scary" unless they caused a fearful or anxious reaction.

So it is good to know that your son's anxiety system is functioning well. What he does seem to have also, however, is a very vivid imagination. What that may mean is that the stories seem scarier to him because they seem more real due to the way he is able to visualise them.

Also the fact that you describe your son as soft, sensitive and emotional means that he is likely to be more attuned to his feelings and may even feel his feelings more intensely than other boys his age.

Again, this is not a bad thing, but it does mean that when he feels scared, he feels very scared.

Make sure, too, that you are focusing on his positives. Think of him as strong, capable, imaginative, emotionally aware and sociable. Your attitude towards him will change and he may begin to embody these traits even more.

When children are simply reassured that the things they are afraid of are not real, or can't actually happen, it rarely is enough to reduce the anxiety or fear they feel. This is because the fear itself is not a rational thing and therefore pure rationality isn't enough to assuage it.

Before we reassure them, we need to empathise with them. They need to know that we can fully understand how scared or how worried they feel.

So typical things we can say are "yes it would be terrifying if zombies actually came into our house and tried to kill us" or "yes it seemed really frightening when the boy thought he was lost and being chased by the vampire, I'd say we'd all be scared in that situation".

When we can show children that we believe and understand how scared they are, we can then reassure them with a " ... but thankfully there are no such things as vampires in the real world", or " ... but zombies only exist in stories and movies and you can't ever be chased by one".

Children will allow themselves to be reassured when they know that the adults see the full extent of the fear.

If we appear to minimise the anxiety or fear then they will brush aside our reassurances with the thought that "easy for them to say zombies don't exist, they haven't seen the movie".

Given that your son has such a vivid imagination, you can encourage him to be brave and courageous in his thinking, too.

So, if he has terrible fears as a result of a story, get him to recount the full detail of it. Then get him to imagine a new ending to the story; one that is happier and involves the central character overcoming the evil or bad thing.

The main thrust of the reframing of the stories is to give your son the sense of his own power to overcome, or deal successfully with, the bad or scary things.

Childhood fears don't have to become lasting anxieties (for example, we can probably all remember being afraid of the dark or the equivalent but coping better now). Central to this is giving children a feeling of their own capacity to cope.

Visualising and imagining that coping is great preparation for coping in the real world.

Just like the scary stories can transfer to real anxieties, so too an imagined bravery can also transfer to real courage and resilience.

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