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How to Help Children Manage Fears

Why learning to calm down on their own is key

Writer: Rae Jacobson

Clinical Experts: Elianna Platt, MA, LMSW , Rachel Busman, PsyD, ABPP

en Español

Fears are an inescapable part of being a kid: Hiding behind the couch during a thunderstorm. Being sure there’s something in the closet — a monster! Performing those endless nighttime gymnastics —Five more minutes! One more glass of water! — to avoid going to bed by themselves.

When these fears rear up, as parents, our instinct is often to soothe and comfort. There’s nothing under the bed, I promise! But, realistically, parents can’t — and shouldn’t — always be there to help kids calm down. Teaching your child how to manage their fears without parental intervention will help them build the confidence and independence they’ll need to feel more in control and less afraid, both now and as they grow up.


So how do we help kids start feeling braver? The key is an invisible skill called self-regulation. Self-regulation is essentially the ability to process and manage our own emotions and behaviors in a healthy way. It’s what gives us the ability to talk ourselves down or to feel things without acting on them. Most grown-ups practice self-regulation without a second thought. Think of feeling a moment of fear before reassuring yourself that there’s really nothing scary about a dark room. But for kids, building self-regulation takes time, practice, and space to learn — which means parents have to get comfortable with letting kids be a little uncomfortable as they figure things out.

Don’t fear fears

“Being afraid sometimes is a normal, healthy part of growing up,” says Elianna Platt, MA, LMSW, a licensed social worker. And, while kids do unfortunately sometimes face things that are truly frightening, most garden-variety childhood fears don’t represent an actual threat — the “monster” in the closet is just an old coat you’ve been meaning to donate —  which means they actually present an ideal chance for kids to work on their self-regulation skills. But for that to happen, parents often have to address their own anxiety first.

“We want to give kids the chance to practice getting through difficult situations,” says Platt, “but for a lot of parents, that’s easier said than done.” When you see your child in distress, the natural response is to want to make it better, especially if the fix seems like an easy one. But, though jumping in might help your child be less afraid at the moment (and feel better to you), in the long run, it can make it more difficult for them to learn how to calm down. “If kids get the message that Mom or Dad will always be there to do the comforting, there isn’t much incentive, or opportunity, to learn how to do it themselves,” notes Platt.

How to help

Of course, this doesn’t mean withdrawing all support. “We’re not talking about suddenly putting your kid in his dark bedroom and saying “Bye! Be brave! See you in the morning!” says Rachel Busman, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. The goal, she says, is to gently guide kids along until they’re ready to take the reins themselves. “We want to provide the scaffolding they need to stand on their own.”

So what’s the best way to help (without helping too much)?

Help your child talk about what’s frightening him. Kids may know what they’re scared of, but they don’t always have the words to explain. Asking specific questions can help. For example, if a child is afraid of dogs, you could say, “What makes dogs scary?” “Did a dog surprise you or knock you over?” “Is there a certain dog you’re afraid of?” Once you have a better grasp on what your child is afraid of, you’ll have a clearer idea of how to help her work through it.

Some common childhood fears are:

  • Being alone
  • The dark
  • Dogs or other big animals
  • Bugs
  • Heights
  • Getting shots or going to the doctor
  • Unfamiliar or loud noises
  • Imaginary monsters — the “thing” under the bed, etc.

Validate, then move on. Once you know what the fear is, let your child know you’re taking it, and them, seriously. When a kid says something’s scary, there’s a pretty good chance that we as adults don’t think it’s scary,” says Dr. Busman. “But we always want to start by validating their feelings.” For example, instead of “Oh come on, that wasn’t scary!” or “What is there to be afraid of?” try, “Wow, it sounds like you were scared!” or, “I know a lot of kids worry about that.”

Once you’ve offered reassurance, it’s important to move on quickly, says Dr. Busman. ”We don’t want to dwell on offering comfort around the scary thing because even that can become reinforcing and take on a life of its own.” Instead, start talking about how you’ll work together to help them start feeling braver and get to the point where they are able to manage the fear by themselves.

Make a plan. Work with your child to set reasonable goals. For example, if they usually need you to sit in the room with them until they fall asleep, you could agree that by the end of the week, they’ll try turning off the light and falling asleep on their own. Once you’ve set the goal, talk through the steps you’ll take to reach it and be patient.

For example, a plan might be:

  • Night one: Agree that you’ll read two books, turn off the lights, put on a nightlight, and then sit there quietly with them (no talking or playing) until they fall asleep.
  • Night two: Read one book, then turn the lights off and the nightlight on. You’ll leave the door cracked and be right outside but not in the room.
  • Night three: Read one book, then nightlight on and door closed.
  • Night four: Read one book, then lights out and door closed.

Offer encouragement, and be patient. Finally, parents should remember that change takes time, and fear is a very powerful feeling. Stay consistent and praise your child’s hard work: “I thought it was really brave of you to stay in your room for half an hour. Let’s see if we can go longer tomorrow!”

Let your child know you think they can tackle their fears, even if they aren’t so sure yet. “Saying things like, “You’ve got this!” or, “You’re being so brave!” can help your child feel more confident,” says Dr. Busman. Kids, especially younger ones, may need a few tries before things stick, so don’t give up if your child is still asking for that third glass of water or hiding from dogs on the street even after you’ve started working on building bravery.

Not all fears are the same

Helping kids learn to manage fears they face on a regular basis, like being scared of the dark or afraid of going to the doctor, is essential, but not all fears are created equal.

“Fears that don’t interfere with a child’s life don’t always need getting over,” says Dr. Busman. For example, if a child doesn’t like scary movies, that’s fine. It may actually be a testament to their self-advocacy skills, notes Dr. Busman. “Deciding, ‘I don’t like these, I’m not going to watch,’ is your child standing up for his needs and saying, ‘This is my limit.’”

On the other hand, if your child’s fears are persistent, overly intense, or begin interfering with their daily life, it might be time to seek help. Signs that fear may be something more include:

  • Obsessive worrying: Your child fixates on the object of his fear, thinking or talking about it often, or even when the trigger isn’t present. For example, becoming terribly anxious months before his next dentist visit.
  • Fears that limit your child’s ability to enjoy her life or participate in activities. For example, refusing to go on a class trip to the park because there might be dogs there.

Intense, specific fears that cause impairment.

Signs of severe anxiety like panic attacks, compulsive or disruptive behavior, or withdrawing from activities, school, or family.

If your child’s fears seem like they might be something more serious, make an appointment to talk with a professional to see if more help is necessary.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I help a child manage their fears?

You can help a child manage their fears by letting them know you see how scared they are while also creating a plan to work together to be brave. Offering support while giving kids chances to manage fear on their own helps lessen their fear over time. If your child’s fears are having a serious impact on their daily life, a mental health professional can help.

This article was last reviewed or updated on May 3, 2024.