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SALT LAKE CITY — Many children are easily frightened or anxious when going to bed and reading children's books can be a terrific tool for helping them overcome their irrational fear of things that go bump in the night. However, night terrors, nightmares and sleep anxiety are just some of the difficulties many children and their parents deal with that don't easily go away.
Anxiety doesn't always creep up like a zombie when the lights go out. Many children may suffer from daytime anxieties about many issues such as leaving home to attend school each day, the thought of being accidentally left behind somewhere, stressful relations among family members (particularly parents), or irrational fear of strangers.
These different anxieties can trigger panic attacks with symptoms such as rapid and shallow breathing, increased heart rate, dilated pupils as well as excessive crying, soiling underwear, or assuming the fetal position.
If psychosomatic symptoms plague your child, seeing a pediatrician or a mental health professional might offer solutions to your specific issues.
However, if your child suffers from average childhood fears that generally do not interfere with their normal routine, the more you learn about how to deal with the problem to help your child master their fears it will better help them eventually grow out of it.
It's important to know that anxiety is not externally driven; rather, it is fed internally. Our thinking drives anxiety, although it is often triggered by events.
Here are some exercises to reduce or reverse anxiety:
Turn the light on the "monster"If a child is afraid of zombies or strangers, have them draw a picture of their fear and then add some funny embellishments to deface it. Your child has an overly active imagination, right? Have them use it to turn scary teenagers with nose piercings into cows on paper with nose rings. They can also write a humorous story at the bottom and give the teens a silly name (i.e. "Cowpokes"). The next time he see the "scary" people, he can conjure up the funny image instead, think of the silly name and say, "Moo."
Ask "what if" questions
If a child is frequently afraid of robbers invading your home, reassure them that you will do everything possible to keep your home safe. Show them how you take precautions. Let them know that if something were to happen, they will be able to deal with it.
Help your child master their fears by not dismissing them, but addressing them. What would they do if a robber broke into your home at night? Walk them through a different ending to their story, one that shows how resilient and strong they are. This exercise helps with many fears such as separation anxiety at school, a baby sitter, or the fear of being lost.
Fight fire with fire
Some therapists literally do this. They have the child write down their fear or draw a picture of it and throw the paper into the fire. However, I used this tool in another way. One of my sons had nighttime fears for many years. He also loved watching episodes of "The Three Stooges." Neither his "monsters" nor the Stooges were real, but we made one more powerful than the other in his mind.
First, we talked about what was his actual fear. It was very hard for him to articulate, but describing the thing helped bring it out of the closet and into the light. Once he was able to talk about it, we found another fictional thing that could come to his rescue. It could have been Superman or Captain America, but he chose the Three Stooges because they were so funny and created all sorts of mishaps.
There's nothing more powerful than laughing at your fears. Finally, we discussed what would happen when the monster entered his mind. He created a new ending to his story where the Three Stooges would inadvertently pummel the poor monster to death just like they did to the villains in the television series.
All three of these tools, or exercises, allow your child to tell themselves a new narrative, write a new ending and face their fears.
Julie K. Nelson is the author of "Parenting With Spiritual Power," a speaker and professor at Utah Valley University. Her website is nelsonjuliek.com, where she writes articles on the joys, challenges and power of parenting.