Fear is a natural part of human development and the purest form of self-preservation. Without it, ancient man would've been unable to sense danger and deploy "fight or flight" against saber-toothed tigers.
But Tyler Stenton is no caveman. He's 6 years old and painfully afraid of the dark. Even though his parents, Jenna and Irvin, of San Jose, insist that he is a big boy who should sleep alone in his room, Tyler's heart races each night as he crosses the hall to their room, curls up at the foot of the queen bed, and falls into a peaceful slumber until morning.
"It's starting to become a problem," Jenna Stenton says. "We tell him there's no reason to be afraid of the dark, but he throws a tantrum every time. He's just really scared."
As adults, we have irrational fears. It's called anxiety. Imagine what that feels like for a youngster. It is estimated that 8 percent of youths ages 13 to 18 have an anxiety diagnosis, with symptoms typically beginning at age 6. However, nearly all children face some type of fear or anxiety during their development. Toddlers often fear strangers, loud noises and separation from parents; for children ages 3 to 6, it's common to fear the dark and sleeping alone, while children 7 and older tend to worry about everything from natural disasters to social embarrassment and academic failure.
While it is normal and healthy to have fears, it is critical for parents to help their children cope with and conquer what troubles them so they can grow up to be emotionally healthy adults, says Dan Peters, a Walnut Creek clinical psychologist and author of the book "Make Your Worrier a Warrior: A Guide to Conquering Your Child's Fears" (Great Potential Press; 2013).
"Resiliency research is as simple as understanding that our thoughts determine our emotions and behavior," explains Peters, an anxiety expert who works with gifted children. "We're really trying to help our children deal with life. These tools are more far-reaching than the worry monster."
Peters' four-step model is simple: Identify the troublesome thought, challenge it, modify it, then replace it with a positive one. An example: Peters worked with Adam, 8, who loved soccer but grew anxious around tryouts from thoughts that he would forget how to dribble and kick. The thoughts made his "chest feel funny" and caused shortness of breath.
Adam's father helped him work through his anxiety by reminding him how much he loved soccer, how long he'd been playing and how he's always known what to do at tryouts before. Adam was able to look at the situation a different way and realize that the worry monster was being a bully and lying to him. "I play soccer a lot and know how to play," he told his father.
Kylie O'Kennedy, of Benicia, tried a different approach when her daughter, Sunshine, then 3 ½, developed a fear of monsters after seeing part of the animated film "Monsters, Inc." In the movie, monsters enter children's rooms through doors. Anytime Sunshine saw a door, she would become particularly anxious.
"We would talk about how monsters were not real, and how if there were monsters, our dogs would bark at them and protect us," O'Kennedy says. "But that didn't seem to work."
So, O'Kennedy tried something more hands-on. She gave her daughter a foam sword and told her she had the power within herself to make the monsters disappear. All she had to do was raise her sword and say, "Go away, monsters!"
"The results were immediate," O'Kennedy says. "She did it for a couple of weeks whenever the fear popped in her head, but then eventually stopped worrying about them altogether. It felt good to see my daughter so empowered. And I feel that validating the fact that they were real to her was an important part of the healing process."
Equally healing was how O'Kennedy worked with Sunshine's teacher to squelch her separation anxiety during preschool. About three months into her second year of preschool, Sunshine would start to cry and cling to her mom when it was time to say goodbye. Instead of lingering, O'Kennedy hugged her daughter and made a swift exit. Then, her teacher took Sunshine to the window so they could wave and watch mom drive away.
"I'd also write notes that said, 'Our hearts are always together' and put them in her lunch, so she looked forward to seeing those," O'Kennedy says.
Distress at separation is a normal developmental response and among the most common fears in children, says psychiatrist Andrew Giammona, medical director and division director for Mental Health and Child Development at Children's Hospital & Research Center in Oakland. In fact, in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-5, the updated manual on mental health disorders, the age at onset for separation anxiety has been extended, "because a substantial number of adults report onset of separation anxiety after age 18," he says.
Before going on a trip, Giammona recommends spending extra time with your child. Also, try leaving a transitional object behind for them. When Giammona's son Manfred was 3, it was dad's hospital badge. "It had my picture on it," Giammona says. Also, keep communication promises. If you say you'll be back at the hotel to Skype at bedtime, then do it.
"The most important thing is to check yourself first," Giammona says. "If you're showing your own anxiety or go into the yo-yo of coming and going (at preschool or the airport), then you're telling your child that this behavior is normal and acceptable."
With 40 million Americans currently living with anxiety, a National Institutes of Mental Health number that only represents the people who have sought help and been diagnosed, it is clear that giving your child the tools to cope with their worries now is critical to how they will manage and overcome anxiety in the future.
It's especially important, Giammona says, at a time when our world is a somewhat scary place.
"We are definitely more exposed to anxiety-provoking images, and that occurs at even younger and younger ages," he says. "We don't watch the news at our house. You have to filter information for them until they are able to filter it for themselves."
Reach Jessica Yadegaran at email@example.com.
more than fear?
Five warning signs
Only 5 percent of children suffer from real phobias, but if your child's fear is worsening or there may be a more serious emotional or developmental issues, it may be time to consult a professional. Look for these five signs, courtesy of psychologist and anxiety expert Dan Peters of the Summit Center in Walnut Creek:
Certain strategies don't help to minimize worry and fear, including: identifying and modifying the fear, positive self talk and external reinforcement.
The worry and fear continue to make it difficult for a child to manage and participate in such daily activities as school, social activities and sleep.
The child is experiencing significant daily distress that is causing persistent and intense behavior.
The child's distress is having a significant effect on family functioning and harmony.
The child begins to become depressed, avoids many aspects of life and isolates from family and friends.
-- Jessica Yadegaran
5 ways to help kids
Psychologist Dan Peters is an anxiety expert and executive director of Summit Center in Walnut Creek, which specializes in the treatment of gifted children with social and emotional challenges. The following tips can be found in his book, "Make Your Worrier a Warrior: A Guide to Conquering Your Child's Fears" (Great Potential Press; 2013).
Teach them about the survival response. When we feel anxiety, the amygdala, the brain's fear center, sends a message to our body to run fast and fight hard. That process can cause a chain reaction of sensations, from tummy butterflies to having a tight chest.
Teach them about the Worry Monster. According to Peters, the Worry Monster is an imaginary creature that bullies kids by telling them worrisome things. Giving the problem an external identity separates it from the child and makes them feel that they can overcome it.
Teach them to identify and modify. Going from, "I'm scared I'm going to fail the test" to "The test is going to be hard, but I am prepared and will try my best and do fine" modifies and reduces the Worry Monster's power.
Help break down scary steps into small, doable steps. Afraid of big dogs? Start by looking at a book about dogs. Then, check out the neighbor's dog from across the street.
Give them external reinforcement. Who wants to do something they find scary? Incentivizing helps kids take a step forward. Frozen yogurt if they take a bath ? Fifteen extra minutes of "Minecraft" if they take the test? It motivates.
-- Jessica Yadegaran
Licensed psychologist and anxiety expert Dan Peters will discuss the strategies in his book, "Make Your Worrier a Warrior: A Guide to Conquering Your Child's Fears" (Great Potential Press; 2013) at a free public seminar for parents from 7 to 8:30 p.m. April 10 at John F. Baldwin Elementary School, 741 Brookside Drive, Danville. http://summitcenter.us.