Responding Thoughtfully to Children’s Fears
by Erika Christakis

*Supporting graphics can be found in the pdf version of this article.

“It is important for adults to reassure children that they are safe.”

That is a refrain I have heard many times (and found myself repeating) during this year of growing hardship for many Americans. But reassurance, however, well intended, can sometimes backfire and even increase children’s anxiety.


Reassurance certainly seems like the natural response to children during stressful times. After all, caregivers have powerful urges to protect young children, and we know that fear and anxiety, particularly from traumatic events, can adversely affect the architecture of the growing brain. It is hard to recall a bigger trigger for anxiety than 2020 is shaping up to be. In addition to the death, disability and financial insecurity many families—including child care teachers—are facing from COVID-19, the pandemic has amplified systemic inequality, unhealed racial wounds and the painful economics of securing quality child care. 

Responding thoughtfully to young children’s fears during uncertain times is critical because, as the National Council on the Developing Child explains, “For young children who perceive the world as a threatening place, a wide range of conditions can trigger anxious behaviors that then impair their ability to learn and to interact socially with others.” 

When a child expresses fear that a parent or grandparent might die from COVID-19, or when we watch them weave real-life concerns in their fantasy play (such as a virus monster “attacking” and wiping out a town made of blocks,) it is tempting to turn to the familiar cognitive toolkit of adulthood: reassurance, appeals to reason, and sometimes wishful thinking or denial.

“Oh, sweetheart,” we reassure an anxious child, “please don’t worry about Mommy dying. Mommy’s wearing a special mask at work that keeps the germs away so she will not get sick.” A parent might reason with their child that social distancing efforts will enable grandpa to remain disease-free so he can play with his grandchildren and have a long life. An anguished parent facing homelessness might promise a child that the family will only have to live in a shelter for a short while, until mom or dad gets their new job back or when a stimulus check arrives. 

What kind of adult would not want to offer these reassurances? 

Here is the problem. Apart from the fact that these comforting claims are aspirations, not certainties, and that they may not even reassure the adult making them, when we rush to immediately offer reassurance or persuasion to a distressed child, we are relying on cognitive tools to address an emotional state of mind—namely, fear—that calls first for an empathic connection before any kind of shared problem-solving can be achieved. This cognitive/affective mismatch between adult and child is all too common, especially when both parties are under duress. And it rarely works in the long-term.

Think of the times you may have tried to persuade someone of something you are sure is indisputable. Studies show that when presented with factual data (charts documenting a warming planet, for example), the recipient of the information will often do the opposite of what the information-giver had intended. Rather than receive the facts gratefully—“Wow, thanks so much. You know, I can really see how wrong I was!”—most people actually become more entrenched in their beliefs, responding with denial or even hostility. 

Fearful children can do something similar when they are offered reassurance that does not actually reassure them. This discomfort leaves adults feeling helpless in the face of increasingly desperate bids for more reassurance. It can feel like hurtling down a rabbit hole of mutually reinforcing anxiety, in which the child keeps upping the ante with probing or circular questions that seem designed to entrap the person providing the answers.

“How do you know you are not going to die from the coronavirus?” “What if the monster did figure out how to climb through the screen window?”

Scientists tell us that the child’s neural reward centers grow to crave more and more reassurance, and they will not rest until they get that dopamine hit of a non-negotiable cognitive guarantee. (“Oh yeah? Nothing will happen to me? Prove it!”)

But even with all this reassurance and persuasion, the child is still alone with their feelings. A more effective approach involves meeting the frightened child emotionally in a way that communicates, “I am with you and I am incredibly interested in your  thoughts and feelings. And guess what? There is nothing in your inner life that troubles me.”

When a child expresses a fear, we must try to resist our temptation to “fix” the emotion with facts and redirection and respond first with validation. Instead, for example, a teacher could say to a distressed child:

“Oh my goodness, thanks for telling me how scared you are! Those thoughts sound so scary. Ugh, I hate it when I have worries about people dying and leaving me all alone. You know, when I have a scary thought like that, I really like to hold someone’s hand. Is it alright if I hold your hand right now?”

Psychotherapist Dan Hughes describes the benefits of emotional connection using the PACE approach: Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity and Empathy. While PACE has been used therapeutically with traumatized and neglected children, it is an approach that pays dividends in our interactions with all children, and especially with the 50 percent of American children who have had at least one “adverse childhood experience” and the 10 percent who face three or more such events (e.g. divorce, death or mental illness in a parent, poverty or homelessness etc.) PACE techniques can be very positive, because we also know that emotional support from trusted loved ones can provide a protective buffer against traumatic experiences and can help children to thread the needle between a relatively healthy level of stress (which is necessary in order to build a resilient brain,) versus the toxic level of stress that can cause lifelong damage.  

Empathy does not require us to abandon our cognitive faculties, of course. Establishing a reality base is helpful for young children with distorted ideas about, for example, disease transmission. But the fact-finding mission should come after the adult finds a way to join the child, emotionally, first. Robert Spottswood, a Vermont-based therapist and trauma expert, explains that “Affect is where the action is.” By that, he means that emotional connection is the primary fuel source for healthy development. With a secure emotional base, children can trust adults and therefore learn from and accept guidance from them—for example, that a monster really is not under the bed. Over time they can come to these understandings even without the presence of an adult to confirm them.

To be clear, cognitively focused strategies can also be helpful to anxious children. All caregivers should be familiar with evidence-based tools to practice self-soothing, such as helping kids draw up a plan in anticipation of a stressful event, or to tell a story about their fear (“name it to tame it,”) or to practice previewing and reflection techniques. Trauma expert Bruce Perry is also a fan of the walking cure: getting children moving their bodies in order to prevent or manage stress.

I believe these strategies are more effective when coupled with emotional attachment. And it is important to remember that when we foster a close, empathic connection with a child, we can sometimes actually obviate the need for many of these strategies designed to manage children’s stressful feelings in the first place! Joining a child on an affective level sometimes means helping the child to accept that life is full of unwanted thoughts—but they will pass. With an authentically curious and accepting attitude, you can even use humor judiciously if you know the child well. For example:

“Oh no, those scary thoughts are coming back again! Eek! Run for our lives!”

This enables the adult to put some distance between the child’s feeling and their response to it. Yes, the thought is out there and it can be worried over, but it can also be ignored, tucked away, or even laughed at by the child herself. 

Too often, adults minimize children’s inner lives either because we are too busy/hurried to listen or because we want to make them feel better as quickly as possible. For example, when a child with no history of separation anxiety at school suddenly cries for their family member, a teacher might try to jolly the child out of the outburst, saying, “Oh, come on! You were not crying one bit at drop-off this morning.” There is a time and place for jollying children through minor stresses, but we adults need to seek a window into a child’s inner life, and to communicate that that inner life is of great interest to us. When the child internalizes this affirmation, fears can be relinquished more easily. 

As adults face our own uncertainty and fears, in the time of a pandemic or for any other reason, we may find that we gain resilience ourselves, when we give up our urge to explain the facts rationally to a young child and choose instead to join them in their emotional struggles and to share the burden of their worries. Here are some steps all early childhood teachers can undertake in order to improve our capacity for emotional connection:

  • Respond on an emotional level first. Remember: “Affect is where the action is.” Join first; then look for solutions. 
  • Try to match your verbal and non-verbal communication. A good sign of emotional authenticity is the presence of a “Duchenne” smile, which involves all the muscles of the face, including the crinkly-eye muscles. Researchers Walter Gilliam and Chin Reyes at the Yale Child Study Center have developed an observation and teaching tool for classroom climate, the CHILD, which has many great ideas about how adults can communicate effectively to support children’s emotional health.
  • Practice developmentally appropriate methods to increase your attunement to children, especially to reduce unnecessary transitions, foster warm conversations, and provide ample opportunity for pretend play and gross motor play. 
  • Reject the still-common but mistaken belief that there is a tradeoff between pre-academic skills and social-emotional wellbeing. The pandemic poses unique challenges (such as adults wearing masks that obscure facial expressions), which make it even more urgent that we know and support every young child to the best of our ability. 
  • Finally, we need to empower family members to provide the same kind of emotional attunement for their children that we have discussed here. This requires early childhood professionals to show playfulness, acceptance, curiosity and empathy to the adults who have put their deepest trust in us to care for their children.

Resources

The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2010). Persistent Fear and Anxiety Can Affect Young Children’s Learning and Development. developingchild.harvard.edu

Beck, J. (2017, March). This Article Won’t Change Your Mind: The Facts on Why Facts Alone Can’t Fight False Beliefs.theatlantic.com

NAEYC. Developmentally Appropriate Practice.naeyc.org/resources/topics/dap

The PACE approach: playfulness, acceptance, curiosity, and empathy. ddpnetwork.org

Leyba, E. (2019). 10 Better Ways to Help an Anxious Child Calm Down. psychologytoday.com

Defending the Early Years. COVID-19 Resources. dey.org

Child Trauma Academy. Child Development and Early Childhood. childtrauma.org

Climate of Healthy Interactions for Learning & Development (CHILD) socialemotionalchild.org

The Child Trauma Academy: A Learning Community. childtrauma.org

 

Author Bio

Erika Christakis is an early childhood educator and New York Times bestselling author of “The Importance of Being Little: What Young Children Really Need From Grownups.” A former preschool teacher and director, and faculty member of the Yale Child Study Center, Christakis holds teaching licensure in Massachusetts and Vermont (pre-k through 2nd grade) and consults with early childhood programs and schools. She also serves on the national advisory board of Defending the Early Years. Her writing on children has been featured in venues such as The Atlantic, The Washington Post, TIME.com and Salon.