A child can be afraid of many things for many reasons. If your ‘dad card’ is in your wallet you will know that fear needs to be validated. Even if it is a fear of the package of toilet paper you just got out of the hall closet. The common refrain is “there is nothing to be scared of.” From the child’s perspective that isn’t very helpful, especially when it is reassurance and validation they are searching for.
Validate their fears. Use a technique called reflection, capture something they’ve just told you and reflect it back to them. When they are scared they need to lead the conversation and you need to follow. For example, “I’m scared” should be followed by validation and reassurance. “oh, no. You’re scared.” This will allow them to open up to you and you’ll probably hear about what they are afraid of.
Giving reassurance without validation is going to lead you in circles and you will both get frustrated. I’ve fallen into this trap and had ten-minute conversations with my 3-year-old about how there are no snakes in his bed. I was trying to give him the reassurance he was safe because there were no snakes. It seems like the right thing to do on the surface, but it is a twisting road of dead-ends. I wasn’t validating his fear that there were snakes in his bed even if they were imagined.
Validation is very important to a child. They have feelings and If you try to tell them they are being irrational and giant spiders are not going to swallow them whole then you aren’t validating their fear. You need to let them do the talking about it. They might even talk themselves out of their fear, who knows! But you need to listen to them when they tell you about it.
If you were being chased by a wild boar and you were truly in fear for your life how would it make you feel if somebody said there is no such thing as wild boars, you’re fine? Likely you would be very angry because you have a real fear and the other person is not listening to it. To your child, the alligator under his bed is just as real, and you shouldn’t start from “there is no (fill in the blank) under your bed.”
You should start with validation, and then reassurance. “Oh, no. There is a spider under your bed.” Reflect back to them their fear. It will let them know that you have heard and understood what their fear is. Try not to use too many questions. If you need to understand the fear better use open-ended questions. Questions that allow for explanation not just response.
Talk your child through their fears, you need to understand them before you can help them with their fears. Helping them with their fears can be imaginary help too. Children have active imaginations and if you have validated their fears your reassurance can also be as silly (to a grown-up) as the fear itself, or they can be rooted in reality, or a mixture of both. “Did you know that spiders are afraid of frogs?” Draw a frog on a piece of paper and tape it up against the rail of the bed. Or maybe you have a frog stuffed animal that you can get. “Frogs love to eat spiders, they’re like frog candy.”
This may not work for all fears, sometimes they are afraid of physical things in the dark. For example, a package of toilet paper from the hall closet, in which case it is much easier because sometimes you can remove the fearful object, or help them see it under a different light. It’s okay for you to be afraid sometimes, and it’s okay for them too. Their fears are just as valid as yours.
Remember that when a child expresses their fears to you, it is from a subconscious feeling of insecurity that their mind cannot yet process. They need reassurance that you are there for them to care and protect them. They want to know that daddy will stand between them and harm to protect them. That is what a dad does.
Because any man can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a dad.