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Children's Fears: The Monster in the Closet
By Dr. Liza Bonin

As a natural part of growth and development, children will develop fears. Fears become a reason for concern only when they become persistent and interfere with a child's daily routine.

When a fear reaches this level, it is often identified as an "irrational fear" or "phobia" - an intense concern about an object or situation that would not trouble most people. Whether or not a fear can be defined as "irrational" depends on a child's age and level of development.

Toddlers often have fears involving separation, noises, falling, animals and insects, of using the potty, bathing and bedtime. Common fears among preschoolers include animals and insects, monsters and ghosts, getting lost, divorce, loss of a parent and bedtime. Fear of separation, noises, falling, new situations (especially starting school), social rejection, war and burglars often affect school-aged children. Teen-agers and adolescents fears new situations (going to high school or college), war, divorce and sexual situations.

I often remind parents that fears may increase during a time of stress. Major life events such as a new baby, moving, divorce or death of a loved one or friend can intensify fears. Children may release their stress or act out their grief by demonstrating what they are afraid of. Specific events, like falling, getting burned or being chased by a dog, also may trigger fears.

Most fears are a function of temperament or mood. Also, it's important to keep in mind children whose parents show anxiety, worry a lot or tend to overact, are modeling behaviors for their children.

Parents can help their children calm fears by following some simple tips:

*No matter how silly they seem, respect your child's fears. A negative reaction from you isn't useful and can intensify a fear. A negative reaction would be one that's dismissing, sarcastic or punishing.

*Be empathetic and sensitive towards your child. Give him/her your support.

*Paint positive feelings for your child. Remind your child of things he or she has conquered them in the past.

*Comfort and reassure your child. Empathetically send the message "you can do it. It will be OK. You can handle it."

*No matter how difficult it is, avoid being overprotective. This can only increase the number of fears your child develops or intensify the ones he or she already has.

*Help children anticipate situations that might result in fear and anxiety. Help children develop constructive coping plans in advance. Constructive plans usually involve encouraging your child to face his or her fears in a manageable way.

*Remember children with anxious temperaments tend to do best when their environment is structured and predictable.

*Seek professional treatment if your child's fears are:
o Interfering with family activities
o Creating problems in developing friendships
o Used as an excuse to miss school
o Disrupting sleep patterns
o Resulting in compulsive behavior

Dr. Liza Bonin is a Clinical Psychologist and Head of School-Age Therapeutic Intervention at Texas Children's Hospital. For more information on the Learning Support Center at Texas Children's Hospital, visit www.texaschildrenshospital.org.

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