Gavin de Becker, safety expert and author of "The Gift of Fear," calls fear a gift, an early-warning system that helps keep us safe and alive. This is true for many adults, but children are still fine-tuning that system. Their fears of some things may be inappropriately powerful, and they haven't yet developed adult-level skills for overcoming fear when appropriate. Like all other skills, practice in context is the best way to develop this ability.
Talking it Out
Ignorance is the root source of many fears and insecurities, especially with children. Simply talking about what a child fears, paying attention and answering questions can help overcome simple fears -- especially fears about unknown or upcoming events. In some cases, it's helpful to negotiate about ways to mitigate fear, such as discussing which stuffed animal might best keep the monsters under the bed at bay.
Kids often feel weak or powerless, but adults seem nearly omnipotent in a child's eyes. A role-playing activity where the child pretends to be an adult handling a scary situation can mean the child carries some of that empowerment even after the activity is over. Role-playing can also help a child problem-solve solutions to a frightening experience, such as how to act on the first day at a new school.
Martial arts training teaches confidence and personal empowerment, which can help a child become less fearful. However, the activity called "sparring" is the more powerful tool for overcoming fears. In a sparring match, a child stands across a line from a trained martial artist who is about to start punching and kicking her. Under the safe guidance of a trained mentor, the child learns how to overcome the natural -- and sensible -- fear of being in that situation.
Martial arts sparring isn't the only activity that lets a child safely practice overcoming fears. Rock climbing, some gymnastics moves and even petting zoos offer similar opportunities. When choosing an activity for safe practice, it's always best to ensure the child's emotional safety as well as physical safety. A child who's exposed to something frightening under circumstances where he doesn't feel safe is likely to become less able to overcome his fear.