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How to Address and Quell Fear and Anxiety in Young Children

Has your child ever woken up at 3am, walked into your bedroom and asked to sleep in your bed because he or she is scared? The first night of this is usually met with parental kindness and compassion, “Oh, of course, honey. Come here.” The second night, it is still cute, but also annoying. On the third night, you’re really annoyed. And tired of being donkey kicked all night by the world’s smallest bed hog. Then the fourth night comes, and you yell,

No, go back to your bed, there is nothing to be scared of at home!

And your child starts crying and your dream of sleeping through the night is ruined.

Well, if this ever happened to you, you’re not alone. Children get fears and worries. We know there is no monster under the bed, but they don’t. Anxiety is caused by unknown and uncertainty.

toddler, temper tantrum, fear, anxietyThe worst thing a parent can do to their child is deny their fear. No matter how ridiculous it is, the child thinks it’s real. For the child, the fear IS real. So, what can you do to validate your child’s feelings, help them feel safe, and get them to go back to their beds for the night?

I have 4 words for you. Connect the right brain.

Let’s start with a little psych education here. Our brain has two sides, left and right. The right side controls our emotions and the left is in charge of reasoning and logic. Our right brain develops as soon as we’re born. That’s why a baby cries when they’re hungry and laughs when they see their mommy. The left brain doesn’t develop until later in life and develops at a much slower pace than the right brain.

The most important thing you need to know is, when the right brain is in full gear, the left brain doesn’t work. This means that when kids are having a tantrum, they can’t reason with you. They literally don’t understand your reasoning. This is not willfulness, it’s psychophysiology.

Picture a flood. When the right brain is in a full emotional work up, it floods over to the left brain and all infrastructures are paralyzed. The only thing you as a parent can do is to calm the storm and reconnect the wires.

So how can you calm the anxiety storm? Try validating your child’s feeling. You don’t have to agree with monster’s existence. You simply let them know that you know they feel scared. There are a few things you can do: Give them a gentle touch or hug, get down to their level, repeat what they said, and state what you see.

Here are 3 steps you can try the next time your child is in your bedroom at 3 o’clock in the morning:

  1. Validate your child’s feelings.
  2. Address the issue.
  3. Make a plan with your child. Try have them come up with a solution as much as possible by asking them questions.   

For example, give your child a gentle touch or hug, and say, “You want to come to Mommy’s bed because you’re scared.” Now you successfully validated the feelings. If they have calmed down, you can begin to address the problem. “Can you tell Mommy what it is that you’re scared of? Why do you feel anxious?”  

Woman comforting frightened and upset child.Whatever your child says, just say, “That must be very scary. What do you think you can do to stop the scares (or whatever) and sleep in your own bed until morning?” I believe you will be super surprised to hear what your child will say.

These 3 simple steps are also very helpful when children have anxiety. Here’s another example:

Your child doesn’t want to go to school, refuses to go to bed at night, doesn’t want to leave you at drop off, or cries when you leave. Use the 3 steps:

  1. Validate their feelings. Get down to their level, give them a gentle touch and say, “I understand that you don’t want to go to school and you look very upset.”
  2. Address the problem. “Can you tell me what you are worried about?” “I see. You’re worried Mommy is going to be late picking you up?”
  3. Make a plan. “How about we make a plan just in case Mommy is late. What do you think you can do right away when you don’t see Mommy at pick up?”

These seemingly simple questions help calm and empower your child to face their fears and anxiety and problem solve.

For more information about how to understand the right and left brain, I recommended the book Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. It has more examples and tips to help you cut down some of the unnecessary drama in your child’s life and to help you get the uninterrupted sleep you deserve.

 

 

 

 

Guest Blogger: Linda Li

Linda was born and raised in Hong Kong and came to America 20 years ago. She became a Chinese-English interpreter and translator in 2004. She noticed many families struggling with raising bicultural and bilingual children in Vermont. The cultural clash is real. She’s passionate to use her own experience to help other families. She’s now a licensed social worker and she works at the Community Health Center of Burlington as the Pediatric Social Worker and Child Therapist.

 

 

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