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Mental Health

Every parent has questions and our experts have answers. Read on:

There are 5 questions and answers.

1. Three years ago while on holidays in the states we were caught in a storm where the winds gusted to 70 miles per hour. Since this time our son now 11 years of has a huge issue with wind. He has panic attacks if it is windy. He has difficulty going outdoors, has difficulty sleeping, and it is effecting any kind of social life as he won't want to leave the house. He will not deal with the problem by looking at it rationally. His dad and I are not sure what to do or where to go to get help.

Most children's fears are mild and come and go at different ages. Fear involves worrying about bad things that might happen, but it can also involve changes in the body, such as increased heart rate, breathing quickly, sweating and shaking.

Fear can develop when it is accidentally rewarded. For example if a child gets a lot of attention and reassurance because of his/her fears the child's fear is rewarded with attention and will likely continue.

Some fears are learned through experience. In the case of your son, being stuck in windy and stormy conditions three years ago was a traumatic experience for him. He has not been able to properly process his feelings from this experience. Therefore, experiencing situations similar to that (such as windy conditions) trigger fear in him. However, if a child avoids facing what they are afraid of, their fear will continue. Parents can often help their children deal with fears by using some of the following strategies:

  • Have a Discussion with your Child
    Be understanding and encourage your child to talk about his fears. Stay calm and let your child know that you understand he is frightened. It may be helpful for the child to learn that everyone gets scared at times, even parents. Talk to your child about situations where you have felt anxious or scared. Tell the child how you faced your fears.
  • Set a Good Example
    Try to keep your own fears as a parent under control. Try not to show fear when you face things that make you feel uncomfortable. If this is difficult because of your own anxiety, consider seeking professional help for yourself.
  • Teach your Child Coping Strategies
    Ask your child to choose the strategy that he thinks will work for him and practice them before entering a feared situation. Here are some suggestions:
    • Breathing: Take some slow, deep breaths, as if he is filling a balloon full of air in his tummy.
    • Relaxation: Go floppy like a rag doll, so that all the muscles are loose and relaxed.
    • Imagination: Distract your child from scary thoughts by having him think of a pleasant, happy memory or an exciting event coming up. He may even like to imagine a peaceful scene where he feels relaxed and happy.
    • Self-talk: Have your child think of positive things to say to himself. Help him to write his own coping statements to say whenever he is scared. E.g. it's just a grasshopper, it cannot hurt me.
  • Encourage your Child to Face His Fears Gradually
    Part of learning to cope with fears involves facing them slowly and getting closer and closer to the feared thing. Remind your child to use coping strategies to help him stay calm and face the thing that frightens him. Do this in small steps. For example, have your child just look out the window on a windy day and talk about how the leaves are blowing in the wind. Then have your child go outside in the yard on a windy day while you hold his hand. Let him feel the wind on his face, going through his hair etc. Once your child is comfortable with this then have him stay longer outside on a windy day (maybe go for a ride in the car with him) and talk about how he feels about it etc. It is important to teach your child that stormy conditions can be dangerous, and that he should seek shelter if he finds himself in a dangerous stormy weather. Gradually reduce the amount of support you give your child each time he encounters a windy day. The goal is for him to face the feared thing on his own.
  • Praise your Child for Facing his Fears – Praise you child when he stays calm while facing a windy day.

While these strategies may help deal with most childhood fears, sometimes fears become so strong that they interfere with a child's daily activities and prevent them from doing things they enjoy. When the fear becomes so strong that the amount of fear does not match the real danger, and the fear interferes with normal activities, it is called a phobia and in these situations, additional help may be needed from a professional. Given that your son has had this fear for over 3 years and that it is affecting his daily activities you may wish to contact your son's paediatrician and discuss your concerns with him/her. In addition to this, you may wish to access the Mental Health Services for Children, Youth and Families (MATC) for ongoing support, resources, and counselling. The Central Intake Service for MATC can be reached at 204-958-9660.

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2. My 3 year old is really scared of Santa. Every time we go to the mall and she sees Santa taking pictures with other kids, she starts crying and wants to go home. She does not want to be anywhere near Santa, and this is making it difficult for me to take her to run errands or do shopping. What can I do?

Many young children experience fears at some point. Common fears for young children include fears of the dark, monsters, separation from parents, animals, and a fear of strangers. As children grow, these fears gradually change to fears about such things as social acceptance or academic achievement. Helping children learn to address these fears as they come up will help them develop self-confidence and the skills to successfully manage new situations.

Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, Santa can seem to be everywhere at this time of the year.

Your child's fear of Santa may just be a developmentally normal reaction of fear of a stranger dressed in a costume, which may not be something she has encountered before. Talking with your child about her fear of Santa may be a good place to start. Acknowledge that Santa does look strange in his suit and reassure her it is okay to have those feelings but that Santa will not hurt her. Encourage her to go with you to the mall the next time you go and talk through what will happen once you get there. You may also want to reassure her that she will not have to sit on his lap or visit with him. Planning and preparing children goes a long way to reducing fears. Make sure to provide lots of praise for any efforts she may make.

Some children are born with an anxious temperament and seem to be anxious of many situations right from the start. If you find that even after reassuring your child that she will not be forced to visit Santa these or other fears continue or are keeping either of you from enjoying your day to day life and activities, it might be worthwhile to consult your pediatrician about the possibility of anxiety. Identifying whether or not your child may be struggling with anxiety and developing strategies to help you and your child learn to cope with it can lead to a happier healthier life for both your child and your family.

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3. My child does not want to sit on Santa's lap and becomes quite upset when we take her to the mall to visit with him. We really want to have a picture taken but don't know what to do so that she is actually happy in the picture.

Sitting on Santa's lap is an activity often enjoyed by both parents and children, and in some ways has become regarded as a rite of passage for young children. If you stand and watch the local Santa photo booth at Christmas, you can observe a range of behaviours from both children and parents. There are some for whom that picture perfect moment is obviously an exciting and happy experience, and there are some children who are not at all happy or excited but rather fearful and anxious about sitting on a stranger's lap. For the parents of these children, it can also be stressful trying to encourage an unhappy child to participate in something they do not want to do.

If this is an activity that is important to you as a parent, you may want to consider preparing your child in advance by letting him know exactly what is going to happen. That way, he may be more prepared for the experience rather than surprised once you get there. Make sure you describe what he will be wearing and show your child a picture of Santa as he is rather unusual looking if you have not seen him before. If it is obvious once you get there that your child is still scared or anxious, you may just want to observe the experience with your child and let him know it is okay if he is not ready to participate himself. You can reassure him that Santa still knows who he is and will come on Christmas Eve even if you are not ready to sit with him. Unlike overcoming other fears, such as swimming, riding a bike, etc., –– the fear of Santa Claus's lap is not one that will hurt him later in life if not corrected. It could be that by the time next year rolls around, your child will be ready to sit with Santa.

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4. My nine-year-old is constantly talking about the flood in our province this spring. She has even had a few nightmares about flooding. What can I do to help her get over her fears?

Natural disasters including potential floods are very stressful for all members of a family, particularly those families who have been or are currently under threat of being relocated. Emergencies such as flooding can disrupt your regular routines and although it can be hard for children to completely understand the impact of a flood, they will respond to the tension in their environments. It's important for parents to provide a lot of support to their children during emergencies, and try to make their children feel as safe and protected as possible. Children are generally resilient and most will readily bounce back from the impact of a flood, especially if they have caring adults who support them.

For further tips to help calm your child's fears, please click on the link Flood Stress Information.

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5. I was wondering if the province offers a family counsellor for free to talk to. I feel our family could use counselling.

Making the decision to try family counselling can be the first step towards positive changes for your family. In Winnipeg, family counselling is offered for free by New Directions for Children, Youth, Adults and Families (telephone 204-786-7051 ext. 5262), The Family Centre of Winnipeg (telephone 204-947-1401), and University of Manitoba Psychological Service Centre (telephone 204-474-9222). There may be waiting lists for these services.

If anyone in your family is making threats of suicide or talking about hurting others, you should get help right away by calling 911 or going to your local emergency room to speak to a mental health professional.

–– acknowledges the assistance of Healthy Child Manitoba and Family Services and Labour in responding to this question.

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