A festive Fourth of July fireworks show can fill some kids with fear. But should parents elect to keep their children indoors during the bombs bursting in air, or should they help kids face the fear?
We talked to two child psychologists in Dallas about what causes the fear and how to effectively cope.
Both doctors stress one thing, communication. Discussing the child’s fear with them is the first step in helping them work through.
“It is important to be compassionate, empathetic, and open, while not encouraging avoidance,” Jacqueline Hood, Ph.D., licensed psychologist and specialist in child and adolescent psychology said. “Listen carefully, ask for specifics, and then help them cope.”
Doctors say to be honest and open with kids. If you have fears or anxiety in certain situations, be open in talking about them with your kids and explain how you cope.
“Children are little sponges and will pick up on any anxiety that you have attempted to bury,” Hood said. “If you are fearful of fireworks or public events, your children are likely to pick up on that.”
Hood encourages listening to your child to find out what it is about the fireworks they are afraid of.
“Many young children have a fairly adaptive and healthy fear of loud, unpredictable sounds, as do animals. Other children may fear the bright lights, while others may be uncomfortable with the large crowds,” Hood said.
With children who are old enough to speak and understand, both doctors suggest creating a coping plan.
“A good coping plan will include information about what to expect at the event in terms of sound, number of people and travel time,” Hood explained.
Explain to your child, “at first they may be a bit frightened by the loud sounds, but that the parents will be close, and the noise will be followed by pretty lights,” Dr. Sunita Stewart, Director of Psychological Services at Children’s Medical Center said. “This may be the kind of thing that will allow them to hang on through the initial exposure until they get used to it.”
Once parents know what it is about the fireworks that frighten the child, they can discuss specific strategies that will help put them at ease.
Hood suggested using earplugs if the noise is the issue. If they are scared of crowds, parents can explain that they will stay close and not leave them.
She also suggested giving a child the option to bring something that makes them feel secure such as their favorite blanket or teddy bear.
Stewart recommended showing children a video of fireworks beforehand so they know what to expect. She also suggested having the older siblings talk about how they enjoy the fireworks or how they coped with their fears.
Considering a child’s age is also important in helping them through their fear. With younger children both doctors say you should weigh the cost.
“Very young children and babies don't really understand fireworks and may be put through undue stress for little potential gain in attending a fireworks display.” Hood said.
As a child gets older, the fear of fireworks should typically become less common because they become more predictable and the child is able to understand what is happening.
If an older child fears fireworks, Stewart said it is important to help them work through their fear and not just sit the fireworks out.
“Avoiding common frightening situations can lead to reinforcement of the fear, and it would be better to work this through,” Stewart said.
Stewart suggested it may be appropriate to seek the help of a professional if the severity of their fears doesn’t get better when the child gets older. A professional can “increase levels of exposure with support and ways to enhance the child's control over the situation,” she said.
Parents should also consider any preexisting conditions their child may have that might play in to the severity of their fear.
Hood said the fear of fireworks especially affects children with an anxious temperament, or sensory sensitivities such as children with ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Stewart said two big mistakes parents make are joking about their child’s fear and springing the child in to a situation to get them “over it” without any preparation.
Both doctors stressed the importance of not minimizing the child’s fear or ignoring it.
“Like any other unreasonable fear, it is important that when a child expresses it, the parent take it seriously,“ Stewart said.