Things that go bump in the night

Posted 26 October 2021

For Indiana Jones it’s snakes, for Batman it’s bats and for Inside Out’s Joy it’s Sadness. Yes, we’re talking fears. As the time of year approaches when the world seems set on scary, dark things, it seems appropriate to think about what worries the children we work with. How can we help our foster children to manage their fears so they can best deal with whatever goes bump in the night for them?

Anxieties and fears are a normal part of childhood (and adulthood). The skills to deal with fear come less naturally though and need to be practised. Science tells us that the left side of our brain deals with logic and facts, while the right side is all about emotion and imagination. When we are scared, the left side effectively shuts down. Logic goes out the window, while our imaginations and emotions run wild. Not a helpful combination. So, how can we enable the children we care for to let their left brain back in again?

Firstly, be aware of when fear strikes. This may be obvious or more subtle and revealed in persistent tummy aches or mood swings. Next, encourage them to talk about their fear, making sure to be clear you take their feelings seriously. Children’s worries may be irrational or seem bizarre, but they are very real to them. Laughing will leave them unwilling to talk and dismissive comments won’t help them deal with anything. If they struggle to understand or articulate exactly what the problem is, dig with a few questions. “What scares you about the dog?”, and, “What do you think will happen if you pet it?”, are good options to try. But only if a dog is involved.

Once you’ve discovered the fear, avoid avoidance. Just as we can be reluctant to risk a child getting hurt by playing on the biggest climbing frame in the park, we can automatically want to help them avoid fearful situations. Our nurture is natural, but it doesn’t help long term. Teaching avoidance prevents children from learning that their fear is either unfounded, or that they are strong enough to deal with it.

Try encouraging your child to be a ‘thought detective’ to help with realistic thinking. When they feel afraid, ask them to listen to their thoughts, decide if those thoughts are feelings or facts, come up with evidence to disprove the thoughts and challenge themselves to change their thinking. You may recognise this as part of cognitive behavioural therapy.

The stepladder approach is helpful and proactive. Decide with your child, small steps that will eventually get them to a place where they deal with their fear. So, if being alone was the problem, they could slowly progress from always having company, to having someone in a room next door, to walking to a friend’s house.

Finally, try replacing negative associations with positive ones. A great example is having a dance-off or playing a family board game during a storm if your child is afraid of thunder.

If you want to talk with us about these ideas, or if you feel your child may need extra help in dealing with something, please contact us. We love to chat and we promise to be kind, not scary.