Children need to face and overcome fears

Children need to face and overcome fears
Human beings are incredibly resilient in the most extraordinary of circumstances

January is a dark month. When the Christmas decorations are put away we are once again obliged to deal with short hours of daylight. Many children are afraid of the dark and I know quite a few adults who cannot settle in bed unless there is some light to be seen from a landing or the street. Those of us who grew up with bogey men and other creatures of the night well remember the terror that darkness produced. It is no wonder that darkness became a cultural synonym for fear and insecurity. If you consider that true, you won’t be too opposed to considering that it is also no surprise that people try hard to avoid the other darkness, that of the pain and brokenness of lives that are not perfect and marked by very human wounds.

Confronting a fear is never easy. The older we get the harder it is to shift them. Fears that some call silly when seen in adults feel very real and distressing if you are the one experiencing them.

No amount of persuasion helps shift a distressing sense of something unless we work hard to explore the fear and face it so it loses its power.

It is a parent’s job to foster security and confidence in a child. Sometimes parents do not want to face the hard truth that if a fear overtakes a child, it disrupts development and can be a barrier to progress.


Fear of the dark is a common fear and it is very important for a child to master that because success at beating one’s fear helps you to remind your child of that success when facing bigger fears. Learning to sit with distress and discomfort until it passes teaches a child that things do get better because “I” can manage this. The trick is to help the child with just enough support to face the fear and gradually fade your support so that the child is managing more and more on their own.

With the dark, you do sensible things like reduce the light gradually over a few weeks and eventually close the door. Sometimes you have to sit with a child for reducing periods and always show the child how well they are managing. A child will always do this when they know their parents are there if they really need them.

A small percentage of children will have anxiety problems or separation problems that need more expert help but even in these cases, the parents have to do the bulk of the work.

Sometimes parents think it’s unfair or too hard to ask a child to face fears and they hope that it will go away. Sometimes it does go away but I disagree completely with an idea that it is not helpful to encourage a child to face and overcome fears. Certainly there are cases that need a lot of patient help but most parents know well what their child is ready for and able to try next. It is important to consider when is the right time and also to make sure that the skill you are trying to foster is a skill that the child can take on. When you are pursuing a big goal you need to break that down into smaller and more manageable goals that are steps to what you really want to see.


Going back to the fear of darkness, a first goal might be sleeping with a low light in the room and then a light coming into the room from the landing until eventually you can help the child to accept the dark itself. Whatever fear your child might have, make sure you look at what it is and identify the tiny steps that need to happen on the journey to success.

Stay on each little goal until you see success and reinforce every effort and every achievement. Sometimes it might seem little to say, “you did great to manage that light from the hall for five minutes”.

It is so much more empowering for a child to hear that than “it’s a pity you could not last at least a few more minutes”.

I believe that it is not said enough that our own adult fears can prevent us from helping a child. Our own story can get in the way and sometimes parents can locate difficulties completely in the child without first looking at their own behaviour and story. It is hard for parents to hear that some of what they do and or cannot do maintains a problem for a child.

Finally, believe that you can help your child to shift a fear and if that fear persists for more than four weeks and also disrupts or stops a child from doing something normal or typical, then it would be a good idea to take some advice. Sometimes, tiny changes make a big difference but there is no doubt, doing nothing is not an option and gets in the way of developing problem solving skills.

Facing the darkness whether it is that of the night or the other darkness of discomfort or pain does not have to overwhelm or stop us. Human beings are incredibly resilient in the most extraordinary of circumstances.

Dr Colm Humphries is a clinical psychologist based at Philemon in Maynooth, Co. Kildare.