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What do you do when a child, young person or adult in your care feels scared? Fear is a useful emotion. It teaches caution and helps prevent us from taking unnecessary risks. We don’t want to stop the people in our care from feeling this way, but we do want to equip them with the strategies they need to manage this feeling and overcome it.
Some individuals are afraid of nothing. Others seem scared of their own shadow — both extremes are completely normal. You might like nothing better than a late-night horror movie before bed, while someone else would have nightmares for a week if they did that!
Common fears include:
- Loud noises, like thunder, fireworks, and alarms
- New situations, such as starting school or a new setting
- Strangers and unfamiliar adults
- The dark
- Specific phobias that can seem obvious, such as spiders, flying and clowns, or less obvious, such as buttons or balloons
Children often have nightmares and worries over specific fears, like a monster under their bed. As children develop, so do their imaginations. They can find it hard to separate fantasy from reality. These are very vivid and feel real to them. Most children grow out of these childhood fears naturally. With greater development, fears become about real-life situations, like extreme weather or someone breaking into their home. They may worry about events they hear about on the TV or overhear adults discussing, such as war.
But as adults, we all still have fears. Sometimes there will be a very real reason why we might feel afraid of something. Other fears will seem inexplicable, or we’ve forgotten what happened to give rise to the fear in the first place.
How to help when an individual feels scared
Fears coincide with developmental stages and increased experiences of the world. It is important for you to know and understand an individual’s fears so that you can respond appropriately and minimise unnecessary stress and anxiety.
Sometimes you can predict an issue and mitigate for it, such as giving an individual ear defenders to wear and showing on a visual timetable that a planned fire alarm will happen that day. However, there are times when a fear will be unknown or happen by surprise.
Appropriate physical contact can help children, young people, and adults feel safe and secure, especially if they seem agitated. A ‘help hug’ is a great way to calm and reassure. However, use your knowledge of that individual to decide if this is the best approach. For some, this could further escalate the situation. Always seek permission before touching, “You look frightened. Would you like a hug?” and tell them what you are going to do, “I’m going to put my arm around your shoulder.”
Finding strategies to use
If the individual can, encourage them to talk about their fears and validate the emotion they feel. Don’t trivialise or ridicule their fear and instead of saying, “Don’t be scared,” you could say, “I know you’re feeling scared, and that’s okay. We all feel frightened sometimes.
With support, most children, young people, and adults find and develop strategies to manage their fears. You can find ways to build new, positive experiences if a fear is the result of a past negative one. Discuss their worries when they feel calm and safe and really listen to what the individual is telling you rather than assuming you know what they are frightened of. For example, you might assume they are scared of alarms because of the noise, but perhaps they are more worried because people move around quickly when the alarm sounds.
Together, create a plan of what they could do if or when this situation happens again. You could phrase this as a simple ‘when’ statement, such as, “When I hear an alarm, I put on my ear defenders.” Add visual symbols next to each statement and read and rehearse it with the individual so they are familiar with it. Each time they follow their plan, praise their efforts, even if they didn’t completely manage it. Tell them what they did well and make a note of things to keep practising.
Building positive experiences over time
Overcoming a fear takes time, and it’s easier if it’s broken down into small, achievable steps. For example, someone scared of water won’t overcome their fear by being forced into a shower. Instead, take it slowly and gradually, co-creating a plan with them that might start with filling up a container with water for fun water play and moving on once this has been achieved.
While many fears can be overcome with patience and support, it’s important to seek professional advice if the individual in your care seems to have extreme fears, phobias, has physical symptoms like breathlessness, dizziness, or feeling sick, or has fears that stop them from doing everyday things.