Fearfulness is a universal emotional experience, seemingly hardwired in humans, in response to perceived threats to their wellbeing or survival. In its milder forms, fear can be useful in guiding healthy decision making around matters of safety in the physical, mental, and spiritual realms. Fears left unmanaged, however, can venture into extremes that cause emotional turmoil and irrational avoidance of certain experiences, and generally limit one’s experience of life (Ollendick, T. H. & March, J.S., 2004).
One of the aims of responsible and loving parenting is helping children learn how to manage their emotional experiences in a constructive and empowering manner. Fathers are especially important here: their parenting style tends to promote independence, challenge, achievement, autonomy, and an orientation to the outside world (Turner, 2011). Fathers can leverage this parenting strength by understanding their children’s age-specific fears, and striking the best balance between support, protection, and challenge.
Commonly held fears at various stages of development.
Swiss developmentalist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) observed that children’s cognitive development progresses through four key stages (Boyd, D. & Bee, H., 2011): infant/toddler (birth to 18 months), early childhood (18 months to 6 years), school aged children (6 to 11 years), and preteens (11-12 years). These stages are related to how your child makes sense of the environment around them in light of their brain maturation. The nature of your child’s fears will change as s/he develops more sophisticated mental processes with age.
- Infant/toddler: It is common for your child to be fearful of sudden movements, loud noises, strangers, and especially, separation from you. This stage is where groundwork is laid for how your child will learn to interact with their environment, based on the style of attachment that they develop with you. Attachment theorists refer to these styles as secure, anxious/avoidant, and anxious/ambivalent.
- Early Childhood: At this stage, your child’s mind blends fantasy, dreams and reality. Common fears may include monsters under the bed, the dark, change, bad dreams, separation from parents, perhaps baths or toilets (thinking they may go down the drain with the water), and a fear of dogs and loud noises.
- School Aged Children: This stage signals a significant leap forward in your child’s ability to use logic in how they experience their external environment. Common fears at this age may include being left alone, going to sleep alone at night, animals, tumultuous weather, and perhaps doctor/dentist visits. Fears of death or dangerous situations may begin to arise here.
- Preteens: This stage is likely to include fears of death and physically dangerous situations. It is common for children in this age range to fear failure, criticism, and social situations with regard to inclusion/exclusion from peer groups (Weems, C.F. & Costa, N.M.).
Your role as a father
As a father, starting early with your newborn, it is essential to forge a bond with that involves consistently meeting their needs. This means warmly and calmly responding to their cries for food or diaper changing; nurturing them with soothing voice tones, rocking them, and holding them close. This facilitates trust, which serves as a counterbalance to fear.
Encourage children to explore their environment, while remaining within proximity where you can ensure their physical safety, relative to their developmental level. Be consistently available for them to return to you for comfort as they may experience anxiety in trying new things. Knowing that they have you as a safety net, when they need it, is important for children to feel safe while exploring the environment with their ever-increasing abilities.
Reassure children that they are okay, and will continue to be, when they express a fear to you. Try to avoid frustration or judgment when your child is afraid; instead, have a gentle conversation about what is pretend and what is real. For example, explain in simplified terms what a storm is or how they won’t get washed away down a drain. Use this gentle response to fear regardless of your child’s gender.
When children are afraid of being alone, try to be with them until they feel more emotionally safe. This is a fear, like most, that will diminish as your child matures (Weems, C.F. and Costa, N.M. 2005).
As children get older and express a fear of dangerous situations, help them develop a process for discerning how safe or unsafe a situation may be. If the fear is indeed founded, help them anticipate how they might manage to get through the situation safely if it really did occur. Imagine with them a crisis plan to keep them safe.
Importance of helping your child manage their fear
Helping your child manage fear is important in nurturing their ability to discriminate between what may be a genuine threat and an irrational fear that limits them. The implications of a healthy response to fear is your child will be able to confidently interact with their environment, yet make safe decisions while doing so. In contrast, indulging in hyper-vigilance or irrational fears can have debilitating effects on children as they mature and can potentially spawn anxiety problems and avoidance behaviors. As your child advances through the developmental stages, keep in mind their cognitive ability to process fear and respond with warmth and encouragement as they learn to process real versus imagined threats.
- Boyd, D. & Bee, H. (2011). Theories of Development in Lifespan Development. Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.
- Ollendick, T. H. & March, J.S. (2004). Phobic and Anxiety Disorders in Children and Adolescents: A Clinician’s Guide to Effective Psychosocial and Pharmacological Interventions.
- New York: Oxford University Press.
- Weems, C. F. & Costa, N. M. (2005). Developmental differences in the expression of childhood anxiety symptoms and fears.Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 44, 656-653.
- Turner, R. (2011). How fathers’ style of parenting benefits their children’s development: Overview and lessons learned. Parents as Teachers. Retrieved from: www.parentsasteachers.org/images/stories/documents/Fatherhood_Resources/HowFathersStyle_ofParentingBenefits.pdf
About the Author: The Dads for Life Resource Team comprises local content writers and experts, including psychologists, counsellors, educators and social service professionals, dedicated to developing useful resources for dads.
First published on 03-01-2013.
Categories: Ages and Stages