Ask the Expert: Easing child’s worries about kidnapping

The human mind is not rational when it comes to assessing risk and excessive anxiety can be triggered. Photograph: Getty Images

The human mind is not rational when it comes to assessing risk and excessive anxiety can be triggered. Photograph: Getty Images

Tue, Jan 28, 2014, 01:00

Q 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the right thing or what else we should do so that this fear doesn’t develop further or that she becomes an anxious or withdrawn child over time.

A 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.

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