If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past year and a half, it’s that there’s a lot of anxiety and fear in our world. While it may seem like a simple deduction that the pandemic has created more anxiety, I would suggest that it has exposed fears that were already there. I’ve been a mental health counselor for 22 years and specialize in the treatment of anxiety, depression, and OCD. In the beginning of my career no one seemed interested in the work I did. In the middle of my career, I had some questions of curiosity regarding the nature of my work. In the past 5 years, and particularly in the last year and a half, I can’t tell someone about my job without an hour of questions, gratitude, and what feels like giving someone free therapy.
So now that I have an interested audience, and what I’ve roughly calculated as over 25,000 sessions with children and adolescents, I would love to share what I see as the most common fears amongst children, and the counter-intuitive methods to overcome them.
Fear of failure. One of the most common fears that I hear from children who are beginning that transition phase, ages 11-14, is fear of failure. Many children who have experienced great success and feelings of self-worth in their elementary school years, are just beginning to see failure. Children get this destructive perspective on failure from peers and popular culture. Our culture defines failure as being poor, weak, unpopular, or physically unattractive. On social media and in the movies, the unattractive people, socially unaware-are teased, bullied, and rejected. With this definition of failure, our culture has created one of fear and avoidance of failure. It has conveyed to children that if they fail, they will be ostracized by their peers and rejected for life. Which leads us to our next most common fear, the fear of rejection.
Fear of rejection. All of us desire to be accepted. No one wants to be that child or person at the party who is awkwardly sitting by themselves. We feel rejected when we believe others are judging us in a negative way, not accepting our differences, weaknesses or strengths. This fear of not being accepted soon becomes a belief we hold onto tightly, and can prevents us from living to our full potential. Children who feel rejection are often very empathetic, emotionally sensitive, intelligent, and loyal friends. While these are all amazing traits and qualities, they can lead a person to an emotional overload. Often times, the belief that they are being rejected is simply transference they are experiencing from a peer. At the end of the day all of us just want to be understood, unconditionally accepted, and loved.
Fear of not being loved. In the work I do with my clients we always spend a session getting to their core belief, which is also their core fear. The very things that are important to us can create great anxiety if they are not occurring the way we think they should be. The most common core beliefs/fears are not feeling accepted, not feeling good enough, fear of being lonely, fear of success, fear of not living to one’s full potential, and of course the fears mentioned previous. Our anxiety and fears will tell us that we will never be good enough, never be accepted, and ultimately never be loved. All core beliefs lead to the need to receive and give love. This is why our number one priority in helping our children overcome fear is by giving them unconditional love and teaching them to give unconditional love.
Now that we are able to recognize the most common fears among children, and might I add the most common fears from their parents as well, let’s talk about the counter-intuitive methods to over come these fears. However, before we dive into the tools to overcome fears, I do want to make something clear. There is never a one size fits all when it comes to helping humans! While these are the most common fears I have seen in children that I treat in counseling, your child may have a different set of anxieties. What I will tell you is that regardless of the fears, anxieties, struggles, and weaknesses that teaching your child to feel loved, regardless of failure or rejection is foundational in their development. Let me repeat what I am going to teach you to do. You’ll learn to teach your child that they can be loved regardless of their failures, friends, acceptance, achievements, and any other traditional measures of success.
So, here is the mind-blowing, counter-intuitive tool to fight fear that you’ve been waiting for. Allow your children to fail. Encourage them to fail, give them opportunities to be rejected, and create scenarios where they feel uncomfortable. Do not give them reassurance, do not allow them to avoid, and do not accommodate their behaviors. Let them miss the school bus, allow them to fail a spelling test, don’t brush their hair, and make them order their meal at the restaurant. Do not give reassurance by telling them everything is going to be okay, let them figure that out through the experience. Tell them that they are brave, but don’t allow them to miss the difficult challenge. Finally, do not accommodate by making the situation easier for them, this will only relay the message that you don’t believe in their abilities.
As you allow them to fail, give them unconditional love and support, and let them know nothing will change your love for them, you will empower them over their anxieties and fears.