Many children (and adults) avoid situations, even though they may know, rationally, there is little real risk. What they really worry about is that they will feel anxious. It is phobophobia – a fear of feeling fear. It is helpful when they know that anxiety is just a feeling; it’s not nice, but they can cope – they can even learn to enjoy the sense of triumph when they ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’!
Gently nudging your child towards the situations that create groundless fears, rather than always enabling them to avoid them, is often helpful. Note: a ‘gentle nudge’ is not ‘throwing them in the deep end’. If your child is shy, you might get them to open the door to greet visitors but you wouldn’t sign them up for a national speech competition! We need patience and kindness. Some childhood fears evaporate like mist as they discover confidence and insights, but more typically it will be a slower process.
We may need to instruct our children that the way to conquer our fears is to face them – one therapist tells children “…to put their boxing gloves on and fight those anxious feelings”. It gives them the insight that the emotions are just emotions, and not necessarily reflecting reality. Again, our encouragement needs to be tempered with sympathy; we do not want to give the impression that they should be ashamed of their anxiety.
Social skills – knowing how to greet others and make requests, being able to say ‘No’ firmly but politely, and knowing how to behave with others can be hugely valuable. The set of skills they need sometimes has an old-fashioned name: manners. Rehearsing ‘scripts’ with children before social situations can give them massively increased confidence.
Do realize, trying to escape from anxiety may prolong it. Pretending it doesn’t exist, and developing complex strategies to avoid anxiety can consume immense energy and ultimately increase distress. Avoiding anxiety doesn’t work, coping with it is better, medication can provide short-term relief from it – but what many of us need to face up to – for ourselves and children – is that counselling and psychotherapy may be needed to get to the root cause of our anxiety.