Calming a child’s fears

October 3, 2011

Q. I guess our bright and curious 4-year-old is beginning to realize that the world is a pretty big place and that she is pretty small.

She now often asks us what we would do if our kitchen caught on fire; if a stranger came into our house (especially a bad stranger); if we met up with a poisonous snake; or if a tornado met up with us. We try to give simple answers to her but when we ask what she would do, she tells us that she is a fairy and that she would simply fly away or become invisible. Usually I just say, “Really? Can a fairy put out a fire?” but nothing more because I don’t want to make her anxious. However, I worry that she won’t know how to respond if she is ever in a real emergency and I wonder if we should teach emergency procedures to her, like “stop, drop and roll” or tell her to get help from another mom with children if we ever got separated at the store. But how could we do that without coming on too strongly and making her scared?

A. How lucky you are to have a child who is bright enough and imaginative enough to soothe her own fears.

While you know that you should “stop, drop and roll” if you’re ever in a fire, your little girl just flies away. This may seem goofy to you, but if it lays your daughter’s fears to rest, it really is okay. As the shrinks like to say, “Don’t take away a person’s defense unless you have another one to put in its place.”

You can, however, tell your child that you’ve lost your fairy dust somewhere but if there were a fire, you’d have to stop what you’re doing, drop to the floor and roll around — preferably in a rug — to put out the fire. If an earthquake were coming however, you’d go outside or brace yourself in a doorway, and if it were a tornado, you would go down to the basement or to the bathroom where things are bolted to the floor. And if a snake were coming your way? You’d start running and you wouldn’t stop for a long, long time.


(Hadley Hooper/For The Washington Post)

Your daughter might not ask what you would do if the two of you ever got separated at the mall, but this is a common fear and it should be addressed. Let your child know that you would tell a security guard — or another mom — that you were lost and you would ask them to help you find a pretty little girl who was wearing whatever your child was wearing that day. As long as you have options, your daughter will know that she has options too. Options, and fairies, probably keep fears away better than anything else.

You also should make sure that your daughter knows her own address and phone number; that this information is pinned to her T-shirt if she’s going to be in a big crowd and that she always wears a Medic Alert bracelet if she has a serious allergy, seizures, an implant or some other medical problem.

And of course, you should tell her that you would call 911 if you ever got scared or saw a suspicious person hanging around because 911 always knows what to do. Don’t, however, tell your child that she should do the calling, because she’s too young for that. If she ever has to make this call, she’ll remember these phone numbers, especially if she has seen you color them with a red marker.

You also should turn off the news when your child is around, because everything is high drama these days. Read some books about fear to her because she needs to know that all children get afraid sometimes.

Who Feels Scared?” by Sue Graves (Free Spirit; $13) is part of the publisher’s Emotions and Behavior series, and it is a good choice because it includes solutions, too. However, if you want to look at fears in a more fanciful way (and who doesn’t?), read “King Jack and the Dragon” by Peter Bently and Helen Oxenbury (Dial; $18). It’s a tender picture book about three little boys who are brave enough to fight dragons and beasts all day. But when the noises of the early night get scary, King Jack is mighty glad to see his parents and go back home where he belongs.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com.

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