Fear has a job to do, it protects us, but fear can also get in our way.
When children are small we often comment that they have “no fear”, and that’s because they don’t. They take reasonable risks and often put themselves in situations that make us cringe.
How often do you hear someone say “don’t do that you’ll hurt yourself”? Or in light of recent events it may be “wash your hands or you’ll get sick”. These simple statements actually project our own fears onto our children in the hopes that it will keep them safe.
We all have our children’s best interests at heart. In the moment it seems like the best thing to do, and sometimes the only thing we can do but it can have lasting effects.
We want to protect our children and sometimes the things we say do the opposite. When we instil fear and use it as a form of control (to keep them safe) we hinder the child's psyche development (the human soul, mind, and spirit).
An example of this is when we tell children not to talk to strangers. We do this in the hopes of protecting them from potential danger but there might be a situation when they need to turn to someone they don’t know for help or assistance and can’t due to a developed fear of strangers. Instead we should be encouraging them to trust their instincts and be assertive. We need to be teaching them how to identify adults that are safe and adults that are not rather than instilling a sense of fear that can cloud their own judgement.
The interesting thing about fear is that we don’t need to experience it ourselves for it to present in our bodies and become a barrier. We are all born with the ability to fear, but not with fear itself. People develop fears as a result of learning. Fear is learned.
Many fears stem from an experience or an association to a traumatic event but they can also be learned by observing others or by WATCHING something which induces the fear response. These perceived fears create hurdles that get in our way.
A perfect example of this is my sons fear of spiders. He used to love all creatures big and small. He would even sit there fascinated with a spider crawling on his hand, until one day he watched an episode of Paw Patrol and witnessed Rumbles fear of spiders. This one episode had such a huge impact on him that afterwards his thoughts towards spiders changed. He was afraid of them and considered them “scary”. He didn’t experience anything to trigger this fear except witnessing the fear in a cartoon character.
Fear is a strong emotion. This is why it is so important that if we have a fear of something that we don’t display it in front of our children, because it can then become a fear of theirs. We can help by being mindful of the ways our child may be exposed to fear inducing material such as TV shows and movies, News reports on TV and radio, through books or magazines and through our own reactions.
When we are living with fear our
brain perceives that we are not safe.
It is expected that when early childhood centres and schools reopen that we will be dealing with anxiety and higher levels of stress. Anxiety is a feeling of fear, worry, or unease that triggers a stress response.
We are currently experiencing a worldwide traumatic event. The brain changes in response to a traumatic experience. It sends us into fear based reactions of protection and survival. The “stress response” starts in the brain and ripples through the body. During an activated fear response the brain becomes hyperalert, pupils dilate, and breathing accelerates. Heart rate and blood pressure rise. Blood flow to the skeletal muscles increase and organs not vital in survival such as the gastrointestinal system slow down.
“A really good way to understand the effect of trauma is to think about what happens when your body gets really cold. The brain starts trying to “turn up the heat” in order to prevent hypothermia. First, you start to shiver. A small centre in the brain sends a signal to the muscles to start vibrating in order to generate heat. Your heart rate and blood pressure and even your breathing rate goes up for this purpose. But all this burns a lot of energy. So the brain turns off some body functions in order to keep going. All that matters is to keep you warm enough to protect the brain from getting damaged by the cold. Things like digestion, blood flow to your fingers and toes, and even parts of the brain that we use to pay attention, make decisions and control impulses are all slowed down in order to conserve energy. Whatever the trauma, whether social, emotional, psychological or physical the effect on the brain is similar. The brain adapts to protect itself from the stress that trauma produces. Certain parts of the brain are placed on high alert, while other parts become much less active.”
Dr. Stuart Shanker
It is essential that we view children’s mental health with the same importance we give their physical health. If they are feeling stressed and anxious they should be in their own safe and secure space with trusted and supportive adults that can help them navigate what it happening around them and within them - This need for safety may extend long after the lockdowns have been lifted.
If you have a child that has developed a fear, be patient and remember to never pressure or force them to do something they are not ready to do. Empathise with how they are feeling; you may not share your child’s fears but they are very real to them. Simply validating their feelings can show them that they are not alone. THEN, once a child perceives themselves as being safe we can begin to make small steps forward.
The first initial step would be helping your child identify the ‘stress response’ and finding ways through it.
Dr Stuart Shanker has developed a list of easy steps to help us become more successful at responding to stress and regulating the nervous system which I have adapted for the purposes of this blog.
“Sometimes kids manage stress in ways that lead to more problems down the road,
so we need to teach them how to navigate it effectively.
To do this, we ourselves need to be in a calm, balanced state.”
Dr Stuart Shanker.
Understand the difference between 'misbehaviour' and 'stress behaviour'. The difference is that misbehaviour means the child could have chosen differently. Stress behaviour, on the other hand, comes from systems deep inside the brain. This means the child isn’t choosing how they’re acting; it’s a brain response.
Once we recognise what each child’s stressors are we can work on reducing them. Stress is anything that requires the brain to burn energy to function.
“Parental stress also rubs off on children. Even reading the news of the day causes us stress. So, if we are stressed, it makes it harder for us to be in a calm state to help them become calm.” Dr Shanker
Before we can help them learn how to deal with stress, we need to allow them to calm down. Remind them to take some long, slow, deep breaths and be there for them. You can also encourage them to try something that removes them energetically from the situation.
Then we can sit with them and talk about what just happened. When we can reflect and recognise the peak signs of stress approaching, we can intercept.
'Reduce' refers to your own behaviour. Our tone of voice and physical behaviour speaks volumes to a child. Lower your voice and speak very gently to your child when they're upset. The important thing is that they 'get' the tone, and the love and the safety and the security you're offering in that moment of calm.
6. Restore and recover
Every single child is different, and you have to help each child learn what is genuinely restorative for them. For some children, 'restore' means reading a book or heading outside to play for a while. Whatever helps them tap into a moment of calm.
Once they've achieved this moment of calm, you can consider them recovered and ready to head back into their day.
“If you teach them the internal process of what it means to feel calm,
then they will learn to find those feelings for themselves.”
Dr Stuart Shanker
… and remember fear and love cannot coexist.
Kippist, L. (2018). Teach your child self-regulation in 5 easy steps. Retrieved from https://www.kinderling.com.au/news/teaching-your-child-self-regulation-in-5-easy-steps
Shanker, S. (2016). Self-reg; How to help your child (and you) break the stress cycle and successfully engage with life. New York. Penguin books.