Why we fear and how to deal with the scared child


Halloween is a great week to talk about fears!  Just leaving home this
morning revealed a spookier neighbourhood than I remember seeing the
last time I looked up to take it all in on the way to work.

So why do we fear? Makes sense that one explanation appeals to evolution. The idea is that we have evolved a tendency to notice quickly potentially scary things. The sooner you can pick up on that snake in the grass, ferocious lion coming at you, or huge brown bear within swiping reach, the faster you can act to avoid it, flee, get help, make some noise etc. In other words, it's essential for your survival.

Some very cool recent research has shown that children as young as 3 years of age will notice potentially scary things more quickly than non-scary things (think snakes vs. flowers). Since we find the same pattern in adults, this suggests that the rapid response to potentially scary stuff kicks in rather early. Good thing, if you want to make it past early childhood!  Rather than summarize how the researchers came to these conclusions, take a look at the video and see for yourself. Just keep in mind that since they didn't actually measure fear (which you could do by say, looking at heart rate or other biological markers), the study is really getting at PAYING ATTENTION to fearful stimuli rather than being afraid of it. Still, it makes the point quite nicely that we may be equipped to pick up on that thing that just might be about to pounce fairly early on. Check it out.

My point here is to say that fear serves an important purpose. You want your child to notice potentially harmful things and to act accordingly. Thing is, not everything is a predator about to leap. So children need time to sort out what they should be afraid of and what they don't need to fear. Think of the differences between a cartoon snake on television vs. in a 3-D movie vs. a real snake in the zoo or in your back yard.

As with everything in development, there are also individual differences in fear responses. Children vary in how sensitive they are to scary things, in how strongly they react and in what they find scary. They may also cycle through times of being scared and times when they are not. My advise?  First of all, acknowledge the fear. I hate snakes, but have no problem with heights. Others may not be the same. But telling me to just forget about it, or how so and so doesn't fear snakes will not help. So even if it's hard to understand what's scary about a Disney character, the fact is, your child finds it scary. It can be very reassuring to hear someone say, "it's okay to be afraid" or "I can understand how you feel, sometimes I feel scared too". Second, don't force the issue. There's no timetable for getting over your fears. I like to use a bit of cognitive behavioural therapy or talking my son through his fears. In other words, I try to get him to think differently about what he is afraid of in the hopes that it will affect his behaviour e.g. "That's something in your book, it's not here in your room. It can't come out of the page to hurt you.". We revisit the fearful thing every once in a while but I don't push it. Eventually, he moves on.

My little guy helped me pick out a witch's hat for Halloween, then made sure to stress that I should be a good and friendly witch. It's a small thing to ask for while we work through our fears. And hey, I kinda like to think of myself of as a good and friendly witch anyway.

Please share your stories on dealing with fears. I"m particularly interested in the first time you noticed a fear response in your child or children, the context, how old they were etc. On my next post, I'll talk a bit more about what might contribute to those early fear responses.

– Tracy

4 thoughts on “Why we fear and how to deal with the scared child

  1. Hoo boy. My 3-year old is terrified of his dresser when the lights are off. He calls it a ghost.
    But the first fear I can remember him having was the shadows in his room caused by the street light. He was about 16 months and could tell me that he was scared of the light.

  2. Noise. Loud noise: motor bikes, car horns and thunder especially, until my son was around 4, I think. Can’t remember when it started, but fairly early on, round 15-18 months. Oh, and he wouldn’t even go near a motorcycle until he was around 3.5. Now at nearly 5 he rides up the driveway with his dad on dad’s vespa ( of course at 10 k and hour).
    My daughter (33 months) is far less fearful than my son, but she seems far more resilient than her brother. One thing though that comes up every now and then ( like at 19 months and sometimes now at 2.5) is a ‘fear’ of someone pushing her while in the shoping trolley at the supermarket and her own stroller. I haven’t worked out if she is afraid she will fall if someone else other than me or hubby is pushing, or if it’s a possession thing, like , this belongs to me, mitts off.

  3. My 3.5 year old is afraid of “ghosts” “monsters” and “robots” in his room but during the day he likes to pretend he’s one of them and “scare” mommy!

  4. My daughter didn’t *like* things before (she would have nightmares about the light on her clock or her humidifier during the night), but now that she is 27 months it’s changed slightly. The most interesting things can get her scared. Sometimes she is afraid of our beloved, completely harmless family cat. Birds too. This from a girl who begs to go to the zoo every day and absolutely loves animals! I don’t do much right now to dispel her fears since she seems to be able to get through it herself.
    Quite a few of my friends with children my daughter’s age (2-2.5) have noticed significant Halloween fears as well. I am stressing that everything is “silly” and for right now she just ignores it. We will see what happens though.

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