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Helping Anxious Children Nurture Bravery

Author: Rachele Merk, Ph.D. Boys Town Behavioral Health Clinic, Las Vegas, Nevada

There are the times when good parenting feels hard and doing the right thing for your child can feel like the wrong thing. That is certainly the case when helping anxious children overcome their fears by facing them.   

As they grow, children will inevitably experience worry and discomfort. For some children, navigating anxious situations can be challenging and at times can feel overwhelming and even impossible. When it gets to be too much, some might get upset and act out while others might shut down and avoid. When this happens, parents are often faced with the difficult question of how to encourage their children to face their fears without overwhelming them or making the situation feel worse.

Encouraging children to push through challenging anxiety and fear is also difficult for parents because it goes against their instinct of wanting to ease their child's distress. These are the very times, however, when it's important to remember that children are capable of great bravery. To help your child learn how to deal with anxious and fearful feelings in healthy ways, it's important to keep your focus and efforts on cultivating courage.   

Children's fears vary depending on age. In early childhood, most anxiety and discomfort revolve around separation from caregivers and fear of things like monsters and the dark. Fears during middle childhood through adolescence involve meeting expectations in school, concern about relationships with others, fears of social judgment, real world challenges (natural disasters, violence, etc.) and the health and safety of others. The fears children have at any age are in response to their current needs and cognitive development.  

Keep in mind fear and anxiety are normal parts of life and often very useful. For example, feeling anxious can motivate people to be better prepared for a test or a presentation, or to avoid walking across the street without looking both ways. Anxiety about upcoming events such as taking an exam, doing a presentation, starting a new grade or making a new friend are all short-term, situational stressors. The difficulty some kids have with these events are usually overshadowed by the positive effects that result from getting through the stressor, like getting positive feedback about performance, feeling happy for an achievement, getting to know someone new or doing well.

The dilemma for parents is figuring out when their children's anxiety is a normal part of life and when it becomes a bigger issue that needs to be addressed. Some indicators are when anxiety persists and interferes in everyday expectations such as attending school, going to sleep and interacting with new people or animals. Also, children may cry or began to make statements about danger or worries about being harmed in a feared situation (e.g., many young children express fear of the dark and ask to sleep in their parent's bed).

It can be difficult for parents to know how to best respond. The natural parental inclination is to "fix" the situation or try to get rid of the child's discomfort but this can backfire by reinforcing the concept that emotions are bad and intolerable. Instead, the key is to soothe your child while simultaneously encouraging them to face their fears. Here are some strategies to help you support your child while also building bravery:

1.    Encourage and model bravery.

  • Talk about an anxious situation you faced, how you felt when you experienced it and how you dealt with the situation.
  • Focus on the positives and the reasons your child can be successful.

2.    Practice using statements that are helpful and supportive.

  • Challenge biased or unhelpful thinking and consider thoughts that are more balanced and positive.
  • When your child comes to you with a worry thought, point out times when the child was previously successful.
  • The message to communicate is that we understand they are uncomfortable and that we have faith and confidence they will do their best. We can have this confidence because we will not ask the child to do something we think will harm them or is too difficult. Our demands are based on what we think is reasonable for our child and consistent with their expectations and goals.

3.    Consider using short-term motivators.

  • Figure out what can help motivate your child to face their fear. Also, help them discover what they can focus on to help them work through their fear.

4.    Check-in with your own emotions and manage your responses by asking questions like:

  • What is interfering with me encouraging my child to face their fears?
  • Am I too concerned my child will be harmed?
  • Do I believe I'm asking my child to do something they feel incapable of doing or they aren't capable of doing yet?
  • Am I helping to reduce behaviors that are accommodating the anxiety my child is experiencing?

5.    Be willing to help your child face their fears with your support.

6.    Help them learn to tolerate discomfort.

  • Focus on building strength and bravery that can allow them to handle setbacks and discomfort better.


Doing the right thing is often hard. This is especially true when your children are anxious and experiencing discomfort. For them to grow and learn to handle these feelings in heathy ways, it's important for parents to help their children learn to choose bravery.