Feelings of fear, worry and anxiety are a normal part of a child’s development. In most cases, these feelings come and go and don’t last long. But some young people are more fearful than others, and their worries can impact their socialising and learning. So how do you support the ‘worried’ student? Our guide helps you recognise common fears, what can trigger them – and how you can work with students to get them under control.
Ten-year-old ‘Ella’ has always been a worrier. As a pre-schooler she was scared of the dark and the monsters she believed lived under her bed. She didn’t like loud noises or meeting new people, and she was often anxious in social settings.
As she gets older, her fears have turned to what could happen in real life. Now, Ella worries about COVID-19 affecting her grandmother, the possibility of a war erupting and the planet imploding because of the effects of climate change.
Ella has a school camp coming up and her parents say her anxiety levels are rising. She’s worried something will happen to her dog while she is away. She’s worried she might get sick on camp. And she still doesn’t like to sleep without a light on.
Luckily, Ella has a supportive family unit, and patient and empathetic teachers, and she is slowly working through her fears. With their support, she is going to give school camp a go.
Fear by the age – and stage
Fear is a natural and normal part of a child’s development. As children grow and learn more about the world, their list of fears tends to grow. Common fears for young children include fear of the dark, ghosts, separation or physical harm or threats. In older children the focus becomes less concrete, and they may worry about war, economic and political fears and family relationships.
Some young people are more fearful than others. Contributing factors may include:
Source: Better Health Victoria
Fear of the dark
One of the most common fears in children is fear of the dark. So, what do you do on camp when it’s time for ‘lights out’?
As with all fears, it is important to respond to a child’s fear of the dark with sympathy and understanding. Even gentle teasing or ‘pushing’ can make things worse. Accepting your student’s feelings as real - and responding to them sensitively – is the most effective approach.
Helping students control normal, everyday worries and fears encourages them to grow in their learning and confidence. But if you feel your student’s worries are more serious, seek professional advice.
Dealing with COVID-19 coronavirus fear
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a time of worry, stress and anxiety for all of us.
Many children are aware of the impact of the pandemic and may pick up on the concerns and anxiety of others through listening and watching what is happening on TV, online and at school.
As an educator, you can play an important role in allaying students’ fear over the coronavirus pandemic.
What you can do as an educator:
Remember, children will observe adults’ behaviour and emotions for cues on how to manage their own emotions during difficult times.
Better Health Channel: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/ConditionsAndTreatments/fear-and-anxiety-children
World Health Organisation: who.int
WA Department of Education: education.wa.edu.au
Beyond Blue: beyondblue.org.au
Did you know?
Worry and fear are different forms of anxiety. Fear usually happens in the present. Worry usually happens when a child thinks about past or future situations. For example, a child might be fearful when she sees a dog and also worry about visiting a friend with a pet dog - Source: Beyond Blue
A three step strategy to help students overcome worry..
Controlling worry is the key to keeping anxiety at bay. But just telling someone ‘not to worry’ doesn’t help it stop – nor control it.
Helping students to confront their worries through a staged activity can help them acknowledge their fear, and work towards mastering control over that worry or fear.
Ask your student to consider this question: ‘Can I do something about my current worry?’ Don’t rush their answer. Give them time to think.
If the student answer ‘no,’ their worry effectively becomes a hypothetical and you can engage them in a ‘distraction activity.’ This might be a run around the camp perimeter, an impromptu game of handball, a word game, singing a song or doing a puzzle. Distraction activities give students the space and time to shift their focus from worry – and prevent overthinking and negative thoughts.
If the answer is ‘yes’ then the worry becomes a practical issue and you can work through a possible solution with your student. Encourage them to identify the problem and identify possible solutions (including the pros and cons of each solution). Then work with your student to create an action plan to address their worry.
Giving young people ‘control’ over their worry can go a long way to helping them overcome it.