Dona Matthews

Dona Matthews, PhD, has been working with children, adolescents, families, and schools since 1990, and has written dozens of articles and several books about children and adolescents.She writes a twice-weekly advice column for Parents Space, 'Ask Dr Dona.' Please send your questions to her at the e-address below. She'll do her best to answer your question as quickly as possible.

rsz fear fix 150x150 Getting Kids to the Other Side of Worry: The Fear Fix by Sarah Chana RadcliffeReview of The Fear Fix: Solutions for Every Child’s Moments of Worry, Panic and Fear by Sarah Chana Radcliffe. Published October 2013 by Harper Collins.

I highly recommend The Fear Fix. It is a thoughtfully well-written book for parents by Sarah Chana Radcliffe, a counselor who works with kids and families. Radcliffe starts the book by laying a solid foundation for understanding and practicing emotional coaching, a method of welcoming, naming, and accepting a child’s feelings. It’s done by attuning to the difficult feelings a child expresses, and calmly reflecting the feelings back: ‘I know you’re scared,’ ‘You seem concerned,’ ‘Are you afraid?’

Radcliffe illustrates what emotional coaching is by contrasting it with what it is not. She provides scripts showing parents using well-intentioned but counter-productive strategies, like underplaying a child’s worries (‘There’s nothing to be afraid of here, Sally!’), providing solutions (‘Why don’t you go in there and give it a start?’), or reassuring the child of his competence (‘You can handle that!’). In all of these cases, the parent is interrupting what Radcliffe describes as the wave of fear. By using the emotional coaching technique of listening deeply and reflecting the child’s feelings back to him—with no attempt to underplay, reassure, or problem-solve—the parent validates the child’s feelings. This helps the child feel listened to, and increases the likelihood that he will experience the full wave of the worry, which is the necessary first step to resolving it and letting it go. She writes, ‘The child must be encouraged to feel all of his fear in order to release it fully.’

There are only two simple steps to emotional coaching, which is the starting point for all the other strategies in the book. First, name the frightened feeling. Second, pause. That’s not always as easy as it sounds—it’s second nature for a caring parent to want to rush in and save her child from troubling feelings. Radcliffe points out that one of the impediments to emotional coaching is the parent’s own fears, whether that’s a fear of the child’s experience of fear, or a fear of the same worry the child is experiencing, or both.

Emotional coaching is a good start toward fear reduction, but not every fear can be fixed by a steady listener reflecting the worries back. Radcliffe reviews several action strategies for parents to use with kids who are more seriously worried. She provides examples that illustrate how to implement the strategies effectively. She discusses the importance of self-regulation skills, and includes sections on breathing techniques, other focusing techniques, imagination, tapping, journaling, and emotional healing.

The Fear Fix is filled with friendly, practical, easy-to-implement strategies for parents who want their children to thrive. Radcliffe explains why and how her suggestions work, with references to other sources for readers who want to know more. For example, she underlines the importance of helping a child process and release their fears when a frightening or disturbing event is occurring in the family (e.g., a family member’s serious illness, recurrent fighting between parents, a parent’s job loss). Citing Daniel Siegel’s The Whole-Brain Child, Radcliffe writes ‘Talking about the details of a frightening event help it move from the emotional centers of the brain into the calmer thinking and remembering centers. The emotional “charge” from the event is thus neutralized, and the child will not store the event as a long-lasting trauma.’

I particularly enjoyed Radcliffe’s use of examples, metaphors, and analogies. She tells the story of a child who is worried about going to summer camp to describe the cognitive processes involved in the worry mechanism. She writes, ‘Worried thoughts will continue to pop into your mind for as long as you choose to “click on them” …Repetition of the circuit—coming back again and again to the camp-worry activity—is a good way to form a really strong superhighway of camp-worry in the brain, just as lifting weights for an hour several days a week for months on end will build really big, strong muscles…To put it another way, the more you worry, the more you will worry.’

Radcliffe shows parents how worry is actually a choice we make. She points out that instead of saying we are worried about something—as if worry was something happening to us, and outside of our own volition—we should say we are thinking about something that is worrying us. ‘We’re not “worried,”’ she writes, ‘We are worrying.’ That is, we are focusing our attention on negative thoughts and images.

We have other options, and Radcliffe describes with a rich store of examples exactly how to move from a state of habitual worrying to a calm focused attention on the positive. She writes, ‘The more one focuses attention on positive thoughts, the more positive thoughts permeate one’s thinking, and the more positive one becomes.’ She points out the health and cognitive benefits of doing this; there’s increasing evidence that a positive attitude enhances every domain of life.

The Fear Fix gives parents the tools they need to empower their kids to take charge of their own thoughts and behaviours. That sense of agency is a keen motivator to success, achievement, and confidence in every area of life. With its focus on practical recommendations for positive outcomes, The Fear Fix is essential reading for all parents, and a must-read for parents of sensitive or anxious children.

For more by and about Sarah Chana Radcliffe:

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