My 8 year old son has a fear of our house being robbed. Every night he wants to know if the doors and windows are locked before he goes to bed and questions me repeatedly if we are safe. I’ve heard this a common anxiety, but I can’t seem to convince him there’s nothing to be afraid of. Any suggestions?
The best part of most childhood anxieties is that they are common, allowing parents to vent their concerns and swap advice with other kindred parents. The worst part of childhood anxieties is that they are common and misunderstood, allowing parents to feel incredibly frustrated when their efforts seem lost as one strategy after the next doesn’t work quickly enough in changing the behavior.
Typically, when a child shows signs of excessive anxiety, expressing intense worry and angst about situations or events that are out of their control, such as being burglarized, they are not singular concerns. Meaning, if a child is fearful of one situation, it is most likely he/she has other fears in other situations where they do not feel in control or are feeling judged. Its important to notice these fear trends because it gives you good insight into their thought patterns. You may notice that their fear of burglars or the dark or being alone come about when they have various changes or transitions going on in their life. Or you may notice that the fears seem to come out when there is an event coming up, like a big test or a presentation or a birthday party (even the perceived fun stuff can be stressful). When you start to recognize the trends, you can then help them notice them as well, and explain why their fears are coming out. It can be a relief to know that their fears are surfacing, not because of the real risk of a burglar, but because they are thinking about other real events in their life they may not feel in control of.
And although recognition is great and helpful and makes us feel better when we can explain a behavior away, what’s even more helpful is how to deal with it. So the next step, or side step, however you want to frame it, is to teach them that they are always in control, even when they feel like they are not. Even when they are not in control of their environment, they are always in control of their thoughts. Anxiety is typically created by a fear of the future, what could happen, not necessarily what is happening. So when talking to a What If Child, we want to teach them to play out their fears in their head so they feel like they are in control. Ask, “What’s the worst thing that can happen? What is the ultimate fear?”
Is he afraid of the burglar stealing his belongings? If so, explain how his belongings can be replaced. Is he afraid of someone getting hurt by the burglar? If so, explain your action plan of how you would protect them and yourself, calling the police or beating the intruder with a candlestick in the living room with Colonel Mustard. (remember the game Clue- it totally could happen) If the fear is of being killed, ask what they think happens when they die, play it out all the way through. I realize this is tough, but the goal is to take all the unknowns out and replace them with the feeling of “I will know what to expect.” When we know what to expect, we feel more in control of situations, which in turn decreases the anxiety and the behaviors that go with it.
Another suggestion when playing out the worst case scenario, is to use humor whenever you possibly can. (This is not in the official counseling manual, but a great technique in my opinion) Most of the fears we experience are far fetched and unlikely, but they feel real and intense and powerful. When using humor and making light of something, we take the intensity out and feel even more in control of the thought. However, it’s important when using humor to do so appropriately. When showing the lightness of a situation, always poke fun of the situation and characters in it, not your child and their fear, but what’s within the fear. Make the burglar a man with dog paws who can’t grab the Wii because his paws don’t have a good grip. Make his loot bag have a hole it in it showing his deficiency. Whatever works for the situation to take the intensity out.
But most importantly, when dealing with a child who is expressing their anxiety, dig up your patience. It’s incredibly challenging to be patient when you teach your child techniques to manage their feelings and they don’t respond as quickly as you’d like. It may seem like a constant battle within you between the guilt that you can’t fix it, and frustration that they just aren’t getting it… but they will. It takes practice to create a negative thinking pattern and just as much practice, if not more, to create a positive one. It rarely occurs as quickly as we’d like, so hold on and practice your own positive thinking of faith that they will be okay and “this too shall pass.” Until then, remember Colonel Mustard is innocent until proven guilty, just like you. You didn’t create the situation, but you can help with defense.