Helping your child deal with fears at this scary time can be a bit overwhelming. My son and I recently contracted the flu but we originally thought it might be Covid. This brought on a lot of worries and fears for him (and me!!!)
If you find that you are facing similar situations, whether your family is sick or you know others who are getting sick, or your kids just feel that general anxiety from hearing things on the news, there are ways to help children overcome their fears.
The great news is that learning these steps can help children manage all of their common childhood fears as well. We use this plan for nighttime fears, fear of failure at school, and any other fears that spring up throughout the day with my kids!
4 Step Plan to Help Your Child Manage Fear
Step 1: Understanding the “what if” thoughts
I find it is helpful to talk about “what if” thoughts with kids. These are thoughts that start with “what if” and quickly grow into bigger, scarier fearful thoughts.
So, for example, you may have a scratchy throat and think “what if I have Corona Virus?” Then your thoughts may start to spiral towards, “what if I get really sick?” Then, “What if I have to go to the hospital?” And ultimately, “what if I die and leave my family behind?”
While these what if type of thought spirals are really pretty normal, they can quickly overwhelm your mind and body with paralyzing fear.
To teach your child about what if thinking, use an example of something that they are worried about. For example, maybe they are worried that there might be monsters under their bed.
Once you have identified the fear, ask them, what do you think might happen if there are monsters under your bed? And once they answer ask what they think might happen then?
Doing this will help you point out the idea of “what if” thinking and show how it can grow into bigger, scarier thoughts.
Step 2: Learning that worries growing into bigger fears can overwhelm your brain with fear
The second step in teaching your child not to be scared, or to overcome their fears, is to help them understand what happens to their minds and bodies when they have those what if thoughts.
It is also important for kids to learn how one “what if” thought can lead to bigger, scary, out of control thoughts. A great visual activity to help kids learn to understand how their what if thoughts can take over their entire thought process is this simple color experiment.
What If Thought Experiment
1: Fill a clear glass or bowl with water.
2: Use a food dye dropper to drop one drop of dye into the glass. Explain that this represents their first what if thought.
3: Help your child observe how that drop starts to color and spread throughout the water.
4: Next, add a second drop/what if thought. Talk about how worries can quickly spread – just like the color – and quickly start to take over your whole brain.
5: Add a third drop. Discuss how the color/what if thoughts can really start to take over. Ask your child if they could get some clear water (or a clear thought) out of the glass at this point?
Step 3: Learning to recognize fearful thinking when it starts
The best way to teach your child to manage their fear is to help them learn to recognize that first what if thought.
It is helpful to talk about physical reactions to fear. Helping your child understand and recognize the feeling of fear in their body will help them stop their fear from getting out of control.
This free body map printable from Hes-extraordinary.com is a great tool to use when helping kids recognize and label fear in their bodies.
I also have a more detailed body map exercise in the Brave Guide to Being Afraid along with lots of other great activities to help your child learn to recognize and understand their fear and overcome being afraid.
Step 4: What to do when you start having what if thoughts
Once your child becomes aware of the process of what if thoughts taking over their brain and gets a grasp on what their body’s reactions are to fear they will be able to move on to learn what to do when they have that first what if thought.
It is important to know that different kids will be drawn to different calming techniques. Because of this, you may have to try different ideas and practice them with your child to find what works best for him or her.
Some popular calming techniques for managing fear are:
- Deep Breathing (here’s an article on how to teach your child deep breathing)
- Distraction through things like mental scavenger hunts (you can find instructions for 2 different scavenger hunts in these printable calm down cards for kids.)
- Body Relaxation through stretching, exercise, yoga, or guided meditation. (I like this free guided body scan mediation from Fablefy on Youtube.)
- Talking to a parent, a friend, or a counselor
- Creative art therapy style activities. (see example below)
A fun project for kids to manage their worries and fears
This is one of my all-time favorite activities for kids who are afraid and struggling with fear issues.
1 small box (a tissue box or shoebox works well.)
Paper to cover the box (I’ve used wrapping paper or construction paper in the past.)
Decorations (crayons, markers, stickers, googly eyes, or whatever your child would like.)
- Cover the box with paper.
- Have an adult help cut out a hole for the mouth
- Decorate the box to look like a monster
- Cut up a sheet of paper into smaller strips.
- Write fears and worries on the strips of paper and feed them to the worry monster.
The concept of the worry monster is that he eats your worries so that you don’t have to be afraid of them anymore.
Kids can write down any what if thoughts, things they are afraid of, or worries that they have. Have your children place these worries into the monster’s mouth and leave them there to be “eaten” and taken care of.