I was talking to my mother today about her lifelong fear of snakes, and it got me thinking about things that scare me, like being in caves (more on that later) and children’s fears and how to deal with them. Kids, by nature, seem to be fearless, trying new things, jumping out of trees, leaping off diving boards, but childhood fears are a very real thing, and something parents should know how to deal with properly. My mom’s fear of snakes goes back to when she was 5 and watched her mother kill a snake that was approaching my mom’s brother, just a toddler. The way my mom tells it, my grandmother was “screaming bloody murder” as she whacked the snake with a sturdy rake, and it was that scream that turned my mother off to snakes for her entire life. I always found that interesting, as in what if my grandmother hadn’t screamed when she was killing the snake? Would my mom still have developed this phobia? We’ll never know, but it made me think of how kids mirror what their parents do, and if Mommy is afraid, then kid will be afraid. It’s not nature, it’s nurture.
That being said, I grew up with my mother shrieking if she even saw a picture of a snake, and I never developed this phobia. I actually enjoy snakes, but spiders are another story. That goes back to childhood when our basement was rife with crickets, and I once found one that had traveled through the house and landed on my pillow, which terrified me. This is an honest phobia, but one that I outgrew (I still don’t like them, but I’m not terrified of them anymore) and I once killed one when babysitting, with the two kids clawing at my back in fear, as I came to their rescue from a cricket. That’s what usually happens with phobias, we outgrow them, and when they rear their ugly heads when our children’s safety or mental stability (they were REALLY clawing at me) we come to the rescue despite our adverse reactions to the little critters.
However, some phobias that are born in childhood stay throughout our lives, and it comes down to the parent of the fearful child to help them get through their fears, not to dismiss their emotions, or force them to confront their fears until they are emotionally ready to do so. I recall an incident when I was about 10 years old when my parents took my brother and me to Howe Caverns in upstate New York to explore on a tour. I was petrified of being underground, and had my very first panic attack as I was dragged through the caves, shaking and crying most of the way. I’m not writing about this to blame my parents for making me face my fear, but to give an example of how sometimes forcing a child to “man up” when faced with something scary could go wrong. I vividly remember that day, 30 years later, and if my fears had been acknowledged, I might not have a fear of caves to this day.
When we are faced with a fearful child, what is there to do? Psychologists recommend that we honor that child’s fear, and discuss it with them as much as possible so they can understand that we as adults recognize their fears and take them seriously. Fear of the unknown is the worst of all, so discussing what makes the child afraid can help them understand it more, and hopefully get past it. If we dismiss the child as being silly or unreasonable, we are leaving them not only feeling afraid, but pushed aside in their emotions, and that can have lifelong repercussions.
So the next time your child says they are afraid of something, instead of dismissing it or reacting with equal fear (of course this doesn’t apply to really dangerous situations wherein safety is at stake) talk to them about it. You might learn that the fear comes from a very honest place, and the first steps towards empowering your child to work past that fear can begin.