My eight year old is afraid of being kidnapped and won’t sleep alone

We hope you may be able to help: our eight-year-old daughter has recently developed a fear of being kidnapped to the extent that she will now not sleep on her own or even go upstairs without someone going with her (preferably my husband or me). She has also developed some facial tics which may be related to this new anxiety. She is, and has always been, a sunny child, gets on great with her two sisters (aged 10 and 12), has lots of friends and interests and is doing really well in school. We also live in a safe area and family life is very happy and stable.

We are not sure where this is coming from, except that the Madeleine McCann case was in the news before Christmas and she is also participating in the very worthwhile Stay Safe programme in school (which warns against stranger danger, etc).

We try to reassure her and not make a big deal of it and, for example, have moved her bed into her sister’s room for a while. We are hoping she will grow out of it but would appreciate some advice on whether we are doing the right thing or what else we should do so that this fear doesn’t develop further or that she becomes an anxious or withdrawn child over time.

Though childhood fears and phobias usually have a specific trigger, frequently their cause is quite non-specific and could be related to developmental changes and growing up.

At eight years of age your daughter is getting older and becoming more aware of dangers in the world. She is probably more aware of the bad news stories that are everywhere and may be particularly sensitive to the worries these evoke in everyone.

A big child abduction story such as the case of Madeleine McCann can cause everyone to worry and take stock. It feeds into parental worst fears about what can happen to their children and also can cause children to worry about similar bad things happening to them.

Though, thankfully, abductions and kidnappings are extremely rare, the human mind is not rational when it comes to assessing risk and, instead, excessive anxiety can be triggered.

This is especially the case for children with sensitive personalities or who have a predisposition to worry or being anxious. The facial tics you have observed are most likely to represent a nervous behaviour caused by worry and stress she is experiencing.

The good news is that there is a lot you can do to help your daughter. Anxious children are usually very co-operative and can be easily supported to tackle their worries.

In addition, they often have vivid imaginations (employed against themselves in worry to visualise negative outcomes) that you can draw upon to help them imagine new ways of coping. Below are a few specific strategies that might help.

Support and reassure her
The first step is to be very supportive towards her about her fears and to listen carefully to what she says. Encourage her to talk about her worries and to express her feelings.

Be careful about becoming frustrated and dismissing her worries as this can make her feel bad about being anxious which, in turn, can escalate her anxiety. Instead, aim to be empathetic and show you understand how she is feeling, while also being reassuring that she is safe and well.

Make sure to go at her pace in overcoming the worries
The key to helping anxious children is to go at their pace in overcoming specific worries. You can’t force them not to worry and if you push them too much into confronting a fear, this can be counterproductive.

I think it is good the way you are handling it at the moment – reassuring her, not making a big deal about it and taking some practical steps to help her feel okay ( such as temporarily moving her bed in with her sister). With this reassurance, frequently children overcome their worries in their own good time.

Adopt a gradual step-by-step approach
In overcoming worries, a gradual step-by- step approach is key. Get your daughter’s agreement before taking the next step. For example, if at the moment she finds it hard to go upstairs by herself to the toilet, agree that you will go up with her but that you will wait on the landing or only halfway up on the stairs.

Once she successfully achieves this step, you can proceed to the next one (for instance, waiting at the bottom of the stairs). You want to pick a small next step that she can successfully take and feel a sense of achievement.

If she does feel anxious during the step, coach her in how to cope. You can teach her how to relax, by breathing gently, distracting herself on the task she is doing, or employing positive self-talk (saying to herself something such as “This is easy, I can do this,” etc). Make sure to give her lots of praise and encouragement for each small step she makes.

Don’t let worries dominate/ set aside a problem-solving time
Don’t spend too much time listening to her worries and fears. Many parents find it helpful to set aside a “problem-solving time” once a day when you will listen in detail to her worries and tackle them together.

If she is over-expressing a worry, be prepared to gently move the subject on and to distract and focus her on positive things – “We’ll talk about that later after dinner, let’s now enjoy our walk,” etc. To use distraction successfully, a positive upbeat tone is essential.

Seek further support
There are some good children’s books and online resources on anxiety that you could read with your daughter such as Dawn Huebner’s What to Do WhenYou Worry Too Much.

In addition, do consider seeking professional help from a child mental health professional if you feel her anxiety does not reduce or worsens in the coming months. Your GP could be the first port of call in accessing services.

Prof. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, January 2014. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.
For information on John’s upcoming courses for parents click here.