Why is my child scared?
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Why is my child scared?
The world can be a frightening place for young children. Things that seem perfectly normal and safe for us as adults, may appear harmful and dangerous for children. Parents have to understand that fear is a normal human emotion, that all children have fears at some point in their lives, and that they are a normal part of development. With his parent’s help and support, a child can begin to understand his fears and overcome them.
The main reasons for children’s fears
Dr. Tamer Goueli, lecturer of psychiatry at Cairo University, categorizes them as follows:
Fear of strangers
A child will start to recognize that there are people who are close to him and others who are not. This is the beginning of
“strangers anxiety.” The child labels those in his family (the caretakers) as ‘safe;’ others are considered ‘unsafe.’ According to Dr. Goueli, this is a ‘natural fear,’ caused by natural association.
Separation anxiety and School phobia
The fear of strangers later translates itself into “separation anxiety,” which is a fear of separation from the mother or caretaker, and the fear of a different environment that the child is not used to. Separation anxiety is normal until the age of six, and can then develop into “school phobia” which is an illness, not just a fear. This encompasses more than just separation anxiety, as it may also be related to problems that the child is having at school such as social problems, scholastic problems, inability to cope with peers and teachers, etc. The child may actually have nightmares about going to school. School phobia should subside in the first three years of school. If not, then professional psychological help may be needed.
Fear of monsters, darkness, ghosts, certain toys, loud noises, etc. are examples of acquired fears, as they are acquired through learning. For example, if a child sees a scary movie about monsters, he will be afraid and associate monsters) with fear. Dr. Goueli explains that the brain learns by association during a young age. For example, if a child learns to feel secure by ‘seeing,’ he has to have a clear field of vision all the time. Darkness threatens a child’s vision, and as a consequence threatens his sense of security since he is used to seeing the people he knows and feels safe with.
Dr. Goueli also explains that with the development of language, and in parallel his ‘imaginative abilities,’ a child may have more fears until about the age of three, as the difference between reality and fantasy is blurred. For example, a child may be thinking to himself, “If I stay in the dark, a green monster may attack me.”
According to Dr. Goueli, “Acquired fears can also be related to the environment.” For example, children in rural areas may not be afraid of farm animals as they are surrounded by them constantly, whereas they may be scared of ghosts, a topic that is often discussed in rural areas in Egypt. Children who live in the city on the other hand may be afraid of farm animals because they are not familiar with them.
Without realizing, parents may be the cause of their child’s fears. They may expose their child to scary stories (either told by them or by a caretaker), allow unsupervised exposure to the TV, radio or internet, carelessly discuss issues beyond his understanding in front of him, or they may have their own fears themselves (such as from darkness, ghosts, etc.) which they transmit to their child.
A child may be afraid of staying home alone or being supervised by an older sibling without the presence of a parent or a known caretaker, especially if this older sibling is bullying or scaring him, due to jealousy.
Being in unfamiliar places or with crowds can also cause feelings of fear and insecurity in a young child.
The exposure of a child to a painful experience such as the illness of a close family member, or a death in the family can cause fear and may even be considered as a reason for depression later in life.
Marital conflicts are “a major source of insecurity for the child, and can be displaced in another object [such as] a [particular] toy, darkness, etc. This is an associated fear, where the object is not the primary source of fear.”
Lack of knowledge
A child’s lack of knowledge and understanding of concepts is another common cause of fear. For example, a child may not understand the concept of joking. An adult may jokingly tease him about how cute his little fingers are and that he (the adult) will ‘take’ them with him. The child may take this statement literally and be afraid of the adult and the situation.
As a child begins to gain independence, such as when he first starts walking, he may begin to feel scared. The child soon realizes that just as he can ‘walk away’ from his mother or caretaker, they can also ‘walk away’ from him. It is difficult at first for him to feel secure during these changes. The same applies to many other situations such as sleeping in his room alone or going to the kitchen (or any other place in the house) alone.
Read also: CALMING A CHILD’S FEARS