A fearful 7-year-old who needs professional help

January 9, 2012

QI’m afraid that my 7-year-old daughter needs a lot more emotional support than most children and that the problem is getting worse. Although she is smart and often quite independent, her many worries and fears have begun to affect her sleep and restrict her choices.

I guess that’s not surprising since her father and I divorced when she was 2; her neighbor’s house caught fire when she was 4, causing us to rush outside with her in the middle of the night; and her cousin, with whom she was quite close, got sick and died when she was 5. She also saw a lot of violent arguing in the home of a family member, but I’ve made sure she will seldom, if ever, be exposed to that behavior again.

Although my husband and I have tried hard to reassure our daughter, she still has strong fears, especially at night. She is scared of fires, she says, and of sirens, of “bad people” on the street and of burglars who might break into our house. She insists that we keep the light on in the hall at night and open the bedroom doors halfway.

My daughter gets scared in the daytime as well and follows me wherever I go in our two-story house. She often touches me, as if doing so could keep her safe.

If I have to go anywhere, she says that she needs me and that I can’t leave her with a babysitter. She’s afraid that I won’t come back or that something bad will happen to her or me. Sometimes she almost reaches a point of panic and I can’t calm her down or comfort her then, no matter how much extra love and support I give or how many times I tell her that her father and I will always take care of her.


(Hadley Hooper/for The Washington Post)

Are there any strategies I can use to help my daughter cope with her anxiety and to feel safe, secure and well-loved? Or should she see a therapist? If so, what do I look for?

AIt is not a question of whether your daughter needs therapy but when.

You could wait a year or two to see if the bluebird of happiness comes knocking on her door, but it would be quicker and kinder to send her to a therapist now. Your little girl is wrestling with more fears than she can handle, and the longer they last, the more they will leech the confidence right out of her bones. This will only make her more fearful, more worried and more dependent.

Therapy should be your daughter’s shortcut to serenity — if she has the right therapist. It doesn’t matter whether the person is a child psychologist or a clinical social worker, or whether she uses talk therapy, play therapy or art, music or dance therapy. It only matters that she knows how to help your child deal with her fears and that she can connect with her. A therapist who is right for one client may be wrong for another.

You can probably find the right therapist if you ask your friends, your minister, your child’s pediatrician or her counselor at school for recommendations and then arrange for your daughter to have a 50-minute appointment with the three most likely candidates. Let her make the choice, because she will be confiding in this therapist every week and she has to trust her implicitly.

There are other things you can do as well, such as putting a flashlight next to your child’s bed so she can chase scary shadows away. But mostly she needs you to remind her about the many times she has been brave in the past, so she will be less fearful in the future. A child grows up completely only when she knows that she can rely on herself better than anyone else — even her parents.

She also needs to know that everyone gets scared sometimes and that bravery takes preparation as well as practice. Just asking your daughter what she would do if she found a burglar in the house will help her realize that every bad situation has a few good options.

Help her make fun of her fears, too. If she draws a picture of her imaginary burglar and hangs it on the wall, she’ll soon throw her Nerf ball at his face — and laugh about it.

You can also push away her fears, subtly, if you buy “King Jack and the Dragon” by Peter Bently (Dial, $18) and “Jeremy Draws a Monster” by Peter McCarty (Henry Holt, $17). Even though they’re picture books, your child will read them and learn from them because they put fears in their place so well.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com.

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