There’s a difference between feeling some anxiety and having an anxiety disorder. Ninety percent of kids can identify having a couple of fears. IT’S NORMAL FOR INFANTS TO FEAR STRANGERS, for preschoolers to fear monsters. Most adults recall fearing something as a child, and they didn’t get treatment — it just went away.
I called my book Growing Up Brave because it’s about teaching a child that fear is just a natural human emotion, that you can do a lot of things, even if you feel a little uncomfortable. ANXIETY CAN BE HELPFUL. It helps us perform better on a test; it makes us more alert.
As parents, we tend to want to jump in. Certain parenting styles, like over-reassuring, CAN INADVERTENTLY BRING ON MORE ANXIETY. A child needs a chance to develop coping skills. You want to protect them from what’s truly dangerous, but not from everything in life.
When should parents worry? If the behavior is interfering in a child’s life, socially, academically. If the fear is lasting months at a time. If you start seeing your child avoiding age-appropriate situations: All the other 7-year-olds can go to the birthday party, and your child is clinging to you, screaming.
The research on cognitive-behavioral treatments has grown tremendously. I’VE TREATED KIDS WITH A FEAR OF PIGEONS, ELEVATORS, dogs, bugs, clowns, costumed characters — any specific fear you can think of. We set up “bravery ladders,” where you break up this fear into doable steps. We had a child about to go to Disney World afraid to see Mickey and Minnie. We gradually had him shaking hands with the BU mascot, Rhett the Terrier, and eventually giving him a hug. Seeing a tearful parent say, “I’ve got my kid back” — that is extremely rewarding.
— As told to Melissa Schorr.Interview has been edited and condensed.