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First Person

Donna Pincus on reducing children’s anxiety and fears

In her new book, ‘Growing Up Brave,’ the Boston University professor says certain parenting styles can actually encourage problems.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

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.

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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.
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