A Teachable Moment: August 2014
Dr. Susan Bartell
National Clown Week is the first week in August, which for some people is a cause for celebration. For others (especially kids) clowns cause fear and even panic. Many kids have had a celebration ruined for them by the appearance of a clown. No-one knows for sure why clowns are so scary for some people, but most agree that it has something to do with how the heavy makeup covers and distorts the person’s normal features, making them seem almost, but not quite human.
The truth is that kids pass through many seemingly strange developmental stages, during which they exhibit fears that adults don’t always understand. In addition, childhood is the time that true phobias and anxieties develop—these are fears and worries well beyond the ‘normal’ fears, and they typically don’t go away with time the way developmental fears disappear.
So, what is the best way to handle fears and worries so that we help a child to cope with these stressful feelings? In addition, how do we know if a fear of clowns—or anything else—is simply a developmental phase that will fade out, or whether it is the beginning of an anxiety disorder?
To begin, it is important to respect your child’s fears. Resist the urge to yell, trivialize or express other negative feelings. Do not force your child to confront a clown, the dark, separation, bugs, the dentist, scary movies, dogs or anything else in an impatient or unsupportive manner, as this will only exacerbate the fear. Understanding, empathy and gradual exposure to the feared situation will, over time, yield much better results. This approach will also result in your child’s self-esteem remaining intact—which is an extremely importance aspect of helping a child cope with fears. It is helpful to point out to your child that many kids have fears about all sorts of things, and that it is normal to have them, and to work towards overcoming them.
When a fear or phobia first arises, it can be difficult to know whether it is just passing through, or is here to stay. Typically, developmental fears lessen over time, but true phobias or anxieties actually increase without support, and they often require professional intervention. These more serious fears interfere with a child’s life and when a fear interferes with a child being able to live her life fully the way she should, it is likely more serious. For example, when a child has a normal, developmental fear of clowns she would probably run away when she sees one and return to the party when the clown leaves. However, a phobic fear might eventually result in a child refusing to attend any party or celebration for fear that a clown might, possibly be there.
More serious anxieties and fears usually respond very well to professional intervention, and, in fact, the sooner you intervene, the better because the fear will not yet have become entrenched. As a rule of thumb, if a fear or phobia lasts more than about six months, or it seems to be getting worse rather than better, it is a good idea to seek help. For all other fears, hugs, understanding, patience, gradual exposure and time are the best way to help your child overcome normal fears.
Dr Susan Bartell is a nationally recognized family psychologist. You can learn more about her at www.drsusanbartell.com