By Allison Wedell Schumacher
Have you ever looked at your child and wondered how he or she could actually be yours? I do that whenever the subject of pain comes up for my daughter or me. She and I could not be more different in our attitude toward it. Whereas I gave birth without pain meds and ran two full marathons, I’ve seen my daughter scream bloody murder at so much as a scratch.
The Tooth Saga
A couple of years ago, when my daughter was about to lose her first front tooth, I had to work really hard to remember that she and I are very different people with very different reactions to pain. I have vivid memories of every time I would feel even just the hint of a loose tooth growing up. They rarely lasted more than a day because I would wiggle that thing constantly until it came out. My daughter, on the other hand, will let a tooth dangle by a thread for weeks without even considering doing anything to remove it that might cause her the slightest amount of pain.
But one evening, when it became clear that that tooth was going to come out that very night, there was quite a bit of drama. “What if it hurts?” “What if there’s blood?” “Why can’t I just leave it in?” And, over and over again: “No, you can’t help!”
The Real Problem: Fear
It was then that I realized that we weren’t dealing so much with pain (or the threat thereof), but with fear. How, then, to tackle this fear so that darn Tooth Fairy could do her job? How do we help our children overcome their fears and get on with their lives?
In the first place, it’s important to remember that fear serves a very important evolutionary function and, as such, is not necessarily a bad thing. My daughter, for example, must’ve felt a strong disinclination to bleed to death in that moment, something her six-year-old subconscious saw as possible. Fear kept our ancestors from doing things that might get them hurt or killed. So when our children are afraid of, say, hot things or sharp things, there’s no reason to make them overcome those fears. Their feelings of fear are protecting them from getting burned or cut.
Fight, Freeze, or Flee
To learn more about fear in young children, I turned to Tonje Molyneux, senior program developer at the Committee for Children, a nonprofit that develops research-based social and emotional learning materials for children. She explained to me the function of fear in more detail: “The whole evolutionary point of a fear response is to protect you from danger so you can fight, run, or freeze. We’re wired to recognize danger and respond quickly. That’s why the basic emotion of fear triggers a response in the nervous system that causes a faster heartbeat, rapid breathing, and sends more blood to your big muscle groups so you’re ready to run.”
It’s Okay to Be Scared
But those physical responses to fear still happen in our bodies even though there are no longer any saber-toothed tigers to run away from. So when a thunderstorm comes or your child can’t find you even though you’re in the house—things we think of as relatively minor—she may react in the same way she would if faced with a situation that could truly hurt her. “Children can literally feel the feeling of fear in their bodies, and it can be quite overwhelming,” says Molyneux. “That’s why children need to learn that feeling scared or afraid is normal and okay.”
You may be tempted to tell your child that there’s nothing to be afraid of, or that she’s a big girl now, and big girls don’t get scared. But that can have the exact opposite effect. There’s no need to remove fear from the equation. Rather, she needs your help acknowledging the fear and moving forward with the task in spite of it.
Name that Feeling!
Instead, try naming the feeling, validating it, and offering support: “Does your tummy feel fluttery when you think about that tooth coming out? That means you’re feeling scared, and that’s okay. Everyone feels scared sometimes. Let’s think about how we could get that tooth out even though it scares you—and remember, I’ll be right here.”
When in doubt, add a hug to your offer of support. Because, as Molyneux sums up, “It’s out of that warm, loving embrace that a child will develop all the confidence she needs to tackle all the fears she faces in life.”
“He Did It Anyway”
As for the tooth saga, we ended up calling my hometown friend Jenny whose son Vaughan is the same age as my daughter and had just lost his front tooth. I put her on speaker and breathed a sigh of relief when my daughter asked, “But was he scared?” and Jenny replied, “Yup. But he did it anyway.”
Fifteen minutes later, the tooth was wrapped safely in a tissue awaiting the Tooth Fairy’s reward for my daughter’s bravery in spite of her fear.
Allison Wedell Schumacher is a freelance writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on child abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social emotional learning, fitness, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon and Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at babycenter, MomsRising.org, and Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.
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Thank you for this insightful article. We agree, naming feelings is a first step in helping kids learn how to cope with new and challenging experiences. As parents discuss matters with empathy, children know their feelings are valid and that parents are reliable resources for help when needed.