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How to Handle Scared Children

How to Deal When Your Kid Is Scared of Everything

Being a little person in a big world can be scary, but some kids are just a little more frightened than others. My 5-year-old daughter is one of them. She won't enter a dark room by herself. She still talks about the horror of Disney World's Seven Dwarves Mine Train — a ride so cool many little kids wait hours for the privilege of experiencing it — more than a year after riding it. She didn't go down the big slide at our favorite park until after her fifth birthday; her 2-year-old brother went down right after her.

Since I don't share her kind of general fearfulness, it's been hard to understand and occasionally awkward to parent her because of it. I'll admit to looking at her with disbelief and the occasional eye-roll when she refuses to go upstairs to her room after dark because only the hall lights, which totally illuminate her room as well, are on. "Seriously?!" has come out of my mouth a time or two when she's refused to do something that seems easy and fun (that slide is a good example) because she's scared of it.

Through the years, however, I've discovered a way to deal that both helps assuage her fears and makes me feel like I'm not enabling irrational behavior. Here's an easy plan for dealing with the scaredy cat in your life.

  1. Validate their emotions. Even if the fear is totally unreasonable, telling your kid that they're being silly or immature doesn't help. Instead, communicate that you understand how it feels to be afraid and that you're there to help.
  2. Talk them through it, if they're able. A 3-year-old probably won't be able to gain anything from a discussion about how they shouldn't be afraid of monsters because monsters aren't real. However, an older child like mine can benefit from talking through their fear, and a conversation can help you both better understand the root causes.
  3. Encourage, but don't push. If your child is afraid of doing something like riding a roller coaster or trying the climbing wall, be encouraging. Is it just the newness of the experience that's actually frightening them? However, if they are dead set against the experience, don't force them into it. With time, they might come around to it on their own, but pushing too soon is likely to cause a deeper fear.
  4. Don't let the fear control your actions. There is a difference between acknowledging a fear and enabling it. Drastically changing the way your family lives because your kid is scared of ghosts in the closet or amusement parks in general further validates that fear, ensuring that it will be around much longer.
  5. Remind them that it's your job to keep them safe. Whether your child is having an overly dramatic reaction to something small (a frequent occurrence in my house) or is majorly panicking about something bigger, it's vital to communicate to them that you are calm and in control of the situation and that you are more than capable of keeping them safe. Expressing doubt, confusion, or your own fear will only worsen a scary situation.
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