When initially listening to a child’s worries, a parent needs to employ “active listening.” This skill involves paraphrasing the feelings your child is describing to you. A child can verbalize anxiety, and then the parent can reflect those feelings by stating, for example: “That must be a scary thought to carry around.” Hearing her emotions reflected once or twice makes the child feel that her emotions are validated. Then she needs to direct her thoughts to constructive ways of dealing with her worrisome concerns.
Employing problem-solving techniques with a child is truly an art. Allowing a child to create her own solutions is always the preferred (though not always available) solution. Suggesting solutions is a hopeful technique in itself, as it shows that the problem is not insurmountable.
In general, attempting to rationalize and give logical explanations about the fear is the first line of action. Some fears are born of inaccurate information, and helpful explanations are sometimes enough to dispel certain fears. Though a parent might assume that a child should “know better” about a particular issue, this assumption can be incorrect. For example, not every insect bite in the country can cause lyme disease. Explanations to decrease fears can bring a sense of mastery and control into certain frightening situations.
Sometimes a parent needs to “walk through” a fear that a child is experiencing. Practicing what to do in any apprehension-causing situation is helpful. Fear of speaking publicly at one’s bar mitzvah, for example, can be minimized by going to the podium and having a dress rehearsal with one’s parents. A parent can work on role-modeling an uncomfortable situation by sitting in the other chair (so to speak), and taking the role of the child or the other person involved. The parent and child can rehearse what the child needs to say, and then respond with the possible reactions of the other. In this way, your child will see the vantage point of his peer and himself and feel more comfortable with an upcoming socially challenging situation.
Another way of preparing oneself for uncomfortable situations is the “business card” technique. When a child is going through a difficult situation — be it the illness of a relative or parents going through a divorce — being asked by others about the “matzav” can be very painful. A child needs to have lines ready — I have described this to my clients as “having a business card prepared” — to show to others. The words become perfunctory, having little emotional charge in the response.
The words can be : “Baruch Hashem, yom yom,” or “We should always hear besoros tovos about everything.” If a person continues to ask personal questions, it is okay to change the subject and ask about the other person. S/he will get the message — that you feel s/he is being intrusive and, perhaps, rude. And if s/he doesn’t pick up this social cue, this is probably one of the many social cues s/he does not understand. Your child does not have to be the recipient of awkward and uncomfortable statements due to a peer’s lack of socialization skills. If a child does ask these questions knowingly, to be cruel, all the more reason to give him or her a “business card” and change the subject.
Visualization and relaxation techniques can be additional ways to work with fears, focusing on inner strengths to combat negative responses to life.