By Allison Wedell Schumacher
I’m afraid of heights. I don’t know why, but that’s the nature of phobias. They’re not necessarily rooted in experience or even logic. In cases like this, fear is hardwired into us—that fight-or-flight response that literally helped our ancestors survive. Big, hairy animal headed toward you? It might make a nice feast for forty of your closest friends. Big, hairy animal with sharp teeth and claws headed toward you? It’s probably time to run back to the ole cave.
In my case, my fear of heights helps me avoid, say, the very edge of a cliff when I’m on a hike. If I get too close, my heart starts to pound and my stomach fills with what feels like a pack of very excited weasels. After all, I could slip on the gravel there and fall to my death. I’m better off enjoying the view from a yard or so back.
But there are times when this sort of fear isn’t practical. Sometimes I have to do things that involve heights, like travel on airplanes. Chances are, your child has worries and fears that by turns keep her safe and keep her from doing things she has to do. So how can you help her listen to those fears when she needs to and overcome them when she has to?
As with pretty much everything else in parenting, it’s essential to keep the lines of communication open. If you observe your child refusing to do something, ask him if he’s scared. If he’s not sure, remind him how “scared” feels in his body: a fluttery tummy, faster breathing, maybe even an urge to run. If he is feeling scared—no matter what he’s scared of—it’s important to validate his feelings. Cutting off the conversation with “There’s nothing to be afraid of” or “You’re a big boy now” will do nothing to calm his fears but will instead add shame to the emotions he’s feeling.
Next, try to drill down to what exactly it is your child is afraid of. The first day of kindergarten can be scary, but it’s a big, nebulous thing. Is your child worried her teacher will be mean? She won’t have any friends? She won’t learn anything?
Once you are able to figure out what exactly your child is afraid of, you can start addressing it. And part of that means exposure. To go back to my fear of heights example, I recently observed to a friend how strange it was that, despite my fear of heights, ski lifts have never bothered me. He replied, “Well, you’re used to them.” Specifically, I grew up skiing and rode ski lifts several times a day for several days a year. If you can expose children to something gradually, you may be able to help their fear diminish and perhaps disappear altogether.
For example, if you discover that your child’s fear of the first day of kindergarten is in fact a fear that his teacher will be mean, try contacting his teacher before the school year starts and asking the teacher if you can set up a meeting for them to get to know each other. This will help your child realize (in a safe environment with you present) that his teacher isn’t mean after all.
It’s important to understand that there are some fears one never gets rid of (such as public speaking, bridges, or swimming). The object in this case is not necessarily to help your child get rid of the fear but to help her diminish it to the point where she can act despite it.
Similarly, there are fears one never should get rid of, such as fear of sharp or hot things. These fears need to stick around so they can help protect you. In this case, it’s important to teach children safety precautions (never touch the stove; always hold scissors by the handle) that can help them channel that fear into self-protection.
I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes, often attributed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” For me, flying, hiking, and skiing are all more important than my fear of heights. So, I do them anyway.
Allison Wedell Schumacher is a writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on sexual abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, public safety, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon & Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at babycenter.com, MomsRising.org, and Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.
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