Fighting Off Fears
From Bug Anxiety to Fear of the Dark,
How You Can Help Girls Stem Their Worries

"Don't worry." "There's nothing to be afraid of."

It's easy to say those words to a girl who's scared to sleep away from home or worried about being laughed at. As adults, our knee-jerk reaction often is to offer comfort or try to talk kids out of their apprehension. But according to psychologist Jerilyn Ross, president and CEO of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America and author of the book One Less Thing to Worry About (Random House, 2009), a better way to help someone overcome fear is to start by acknowledging it.

"One of the most important things when you're dealing with someone who has a fear, whether it's rational or not, is to listen carefully to what they're really afraid of," Ross says. A girl who says she's anxious about a camping trip, for example, might specifically dread getting up in the middle of the night to use the restroom. A girl who's hesitant to speak in a group setting might be worried that other girls won't like her.

Asking questions and listening can get to the heart of what a girl is truly nervous about, Ross says. Unearthing specific concerns makes it easier to offer tools for coping with them.

"What's instinctive to us in terms of helping someone isn't always what the person needs," Ross explains. It's important to ask, "How can I be helpful?" Someone who's anxious might say, "Go away, I just want to be alone," but she's also likely to switch gears and want company a little later. The key is to take cues from the girl and not take it personally if she wants help one minute and doesn't the next.

Girls can gradually work through fearful situations if they can be encouraged along the way. "You don't want to push people," says Ross. "I usually think of it as taking baby steps. It might mean taking two steps forward, one step back." A literal example of this would be a hiking situation with a girl who suddenly freezes up on a steep hill. Encouragement to take just one step, then another, can help her break through.

All the while, Ross adds, you want to make sure a girl who's nervous is grounded in her environment. Ask her to label her anxiety from 0 to 10, with 0 being no anxiety at all. If she says she's at an 8, try to do something to refocus her attention, like singing a song together. Then ask again. If her anxiety goes down a few levels, point out that taking her mind off the fear helped to diminish it, and then help her practice doing that for herself.

Another way to work with girls when they're entering potentially scary situations is to give them an "out." If a girl is afraid to leave home for an overnight trip, tell her she can call her parents if she gets frightened while she's away. But have her agree to take a walk or play a game—anything that will help calm her—before actually resorting to the "out."

"Especially for young girls, the anticipatory anxiety is almost worse than when they're in the actual situation," Ross explains. "You give people an out so they don't feel trapped."

Girl Scouts provides many opportunities for young girls to challenge themselves and face their fears—which, Ross says, is ultimately what they need to do to overcome them. "You want girls to unlearn the negative stuff and relearn positive ways of dealing with it instead," she says.

For more information see the Girl Scout Research Institute (GSRI) study: Feeling Safe: What Girls Say