Every child feels fear from time to time. Whether it’s about the monster under the bed or thinking about a scary story a friend told them, it can be tricky as a parent to know how to help our children through those moments. We thought that with the non stop media coverage of the coronarvirus, we’d share some thoughts on fear and what we can do for our children.
The science behind fear
Fear is one of the most primitive emotions we experience. Historically it served (and continues to serve) a vital function for survival. Fear is essentially what we feel when our brain perceives stimuli as dangerous.
A small part of our brain called the amygdala is where fear originates. Sensory information is sent here to process first; for example if you were to smell smoke in a building or hear a growl behind you in the woods, your amygdala would be the first to know. Your focus would become heightened, you might feel a rush of adrenaline, and your heart begins to beat faster as you decide what to do. This reaction is especially helpful in wild animals who are constantly faced with decisions that will affect their survival. It’s not always so helpful in humans who don’t have as many dangerous scenarios to contend with on a daily basis.
Luckily, humans are equipped with some highly-developed portions of the brain: the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. These are the areas that allow us to think critically and analyse information in ways that most organisms cannot. This is why some people enjoy scary movies, haunted houses, or other similar forms of entertainment. We are able to separate the physical response our amygdala sends with the reality we see before us. Unfortunately, there are times when our critical thinking doesn’t quite stand up to the job. Times of high stress are certainly one of these scenarios, as are certain chemical imbalances in the body. Children, and especially young children, haven’t yet formed a solid basis of reality and fantasy, so it can be very challenging for them to sort out what dangers are real and which ones are not.
Interestingly, our body’s physical reactions to fear are very similar to our physical reactions to excitement in positive situations. For example, in many ways you experience the thrill of riding a roller coaster in the same way you experience skidding in your car on an icy road. While on the roller coaster you might find yourself laughing, in your car, you’ll likely feel yourself gripping the steering wheel and gritting your teeth. In both situations, your heart is pounding, your breathing quickens, and you’re not able to focus on anything else. Understanding this phenomenon can be helpful when we find ourselves feeling fearful about something we know doesn’t really present a true danger.
Explaining fear to children
Talking to your child about fear is a good idea, especially if it’s an emotion they’re experiencing frequently. How you explain it really depends on where they are developmentally.
For the younger child, it can be helpful to tell them that fear is a normal part of being human. Acknowledge that it feels uncomfortable and emphasise that they are safe. Don’t minimise their fears, but gently help them explore the reality of the situation. A little snuggle time can go a long way.
As children get older, they might benefit from having you explain the science behind fear in a way they can understand. Again, we don’t want to minimise children’s fears, but we can certainly combine acknowledging them with gentle questioning. “I know you are afraid of that scary movie you saw with Grandpa. Do you think that could happen to you?”
Consider saving these types of discussions for a time when your child is not in the midst of experiencing fear. Unless you already had a conversation you can refer back to in the moment, they won’t be able to process new information at that time. Save it for later, when they are feeling calmer.
Practical tools that help
While we don’t necessarily want to discuss the science of fear while our child is in the middle of feeling afraid, there are things we can do to help them. Try these:
- Mountain Breath: Holding your hand in front of you, stretch out your fingers. Using one finger on the other hand as a pointer, begin on the outside edge of your pinky and trace upward. Stop at the tip of your finger, then begin to trace downward toward the valley between your pinky and ring fingers. Repeat this with your ring finger toward your middle finger, and so on for the rest. Each time your finger traces upward, breathe in while imagining that finger is climbing a mountain. At the fingertip, pause, hold your breath, and imagine you are looking around to enjoy the view. While you trace down the other side of your finger, let your breath out slowly as you envision yourself climbing down the mountain. Repeat 2-3 times.
- 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Exercise: This helps remind the brain that we are not actually in that scary place, but in this safe place right now. Begin by looking around and naming 5 things you see (wall, shirt, mom, hand, chair). Next, name 4 things you can touch, while touching them (fabric, wood, hair, skin). Lastly, name 3 things you hear (fan, breath, cat). The numbers 2 and 1 are meant to tap into our sense of smell and taste, which isn’t always practical in the moment and can be left out.
- Meditation: Many types of meditation, especially when practiced regularly, can help ease our fears. If you’re interested in giving this strategy a try, look into body scan meditation (great for relaxation at bedtime!), loving-kindness meditation (for cultivating gratitude), and observation meditation (to see our fears more objectively). There are some really good apps available. The one I’ve used most successfully with children is called ‘Smiling minds.”
Accepting the fear
Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the hardest ways to escape our fears is by trying to escape our fears. We can remind our children that feeling afraid is normal, and it’s okay to feel that way. We can notice the ways in which our body reacts to fear. We can pay attention to what kinds of situations make us feel afraid. We can try to learn more about ourselves. We can accept that fear is just a part of our lives.
This goes for parents, too. We hate to see our children feeling badly. We instinctively want to make things better for them, but that’s not always possible. We can listen, we can validate, we can teach, but beyond that we need to accept that fear is a normal part of growing up. And, as we know, it’s a normal part of being a grownup, too!