The world can be an intimidating place for young children. It doesn’t take long before they are exposed to unpleasant and even painful situations; visits to the clinic, starting school (without daddy and mummy!) and getting hurt from falls are just three examples.
If some of us continue to feel apprehensive in such scenarios, one can only imagine how overwhelming it is for our little ones!
I have never felt this as keenly as when we were still in the grips of COVID-19. Over the past two years, we’ve had to bring my son for many uncomfortable nose swabs and at every swab test, my son would run away or scream in anticipation of the discomfort.
It can be daunting for us to guide our little ones through these challenges. While we cannot bubble wrap our kids from experiencing fear and anxiety, here are some strategies that have helped my family through such situations:
We would usually talk to our son about upcoming challenges in advance to help him mentally prepare for them. For major transitions such as starting a new class, we would bring up the topic about a month before and engage him regularly about two to three times a week. For self-contained events like doctor visits or gatherings with unfamiliar faces, we would prepare him about a week in advance.
We would also read relevant children’s books to familiarise him with the experience; e.g. about starting school, toilet training, or visiting the doctor or dentist.
Being transparent with our children about upcoming challenges prevents them from getting caught off guard and helps them prepare for big changes. It also builds trust, which gives them confidence to approach us for help and guidance in future.
Where appropriate, we would allow our children to engage in something that takes their mind off their fear. For example, we would let them watch a short video to help them down unpleasant medicines. Or pack their favourite toys and snacks to the doctor to keep them occupied while waiting at the clinic.
Another useful approach is to engage in play. For example, my son once refused to approach the bathroom after he scraped his knee badly, as he was afraid of the pain from wetting his wound. I coaxed him to enter the shower by getting him to “feed” his toy animal some water while bathing. While he still cried from the pain, it helped him overcome his initial fear and enabled him to take the first step of entering the bathroom.
Being transparent with our children about upcoming challenges prevents them from getting caught off guard and helps them prepare for big changes. It also builds trust.
In some cases, we found that a change in environment was helpful to ease our son’s anxiety.
For instance, to help my son overcome his fear of toilet training, we got him to use the toilet in our room instead of the kitchen toilet which he normally used. This relieved his anxiety by removing him from the environment he associated with his fear (i.e. the kitchen toilet) and shifting him to one he likely perceived as safer (i.e. our room).
A similar example would be if my son had a bad fall. I would usually bring him to a quieter place some distance away from where he fell. This usually helps him feel safer as the place of injury is out of sight, and he has more space to calm down.
Whenever our son shows improvement towards a challenging situation, we would verbally affirm him by highlighting his achievements or areas of growth. Some statements we use are:
We would also often celebrate bigger milestones (e.g. starting school in a new class or finishing his graduation concert performance) by treating him to his favourite dishes.
Affirmation and celebration help our little ones to associate their growth with positive memories, and motivate them to face other big challenges in life.
In the weeks leading up to my son’s first day at school, my wife and I were nervous about how he would respond to the change. We worried that he would not adjust to his new routine as he had never been in the care of others.
Sure enough, he burst into tears when we dropped him off at school. I remember feeling guilty hearing his wails as I left for work – a feeling I’m sure many parents identify with. To my surprise, my son adapted quickly. Though he would get pre-school jitters every now and then, it wasn’t long before he started making friends and recounting his school activities fondly to us.
Our children can surprise us with their tenacity, resilience and adaptability. So let’s not be too hard on ourselves, especially when we are unable to shield them from their fears.
With us as their constant strength and support, they will rise above and overcome their challenges – both big and small – in their own time.
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