We all have fears. Fear of spiders, fear of the dark, fear of being left out.
Children are certainly not excluded from this human experience. Their vivid imaginations and limited control of major factors of their lives seem to add fuel to the fire of fear.
Often, our approach as adults is to do one of two things, as Emily Plank says in her book, Discovering the Culture of Childhood. The first is to “fictionalize the fear”. In a well-intentioned effort to comfort our children we tend to explain why that fear simply can’t exist.
“You won’t go down the drain.”
“I won’t forget to pick you up from school.”
“Monsters aren’t real.”
While we hope this factual information will help soothe their worried hearts, it doesn’t always have the intended effect. As Emily writes, “But fictionalizing a genuine emotion is dismissive and invalidating. Even if the fear is unfounded, the feeling is intensely real….Children whose fears are consistently fictionalized by well-meaning adults will stop asking for help, rather than stop being afraid, knowing their fears will be ignored or dismissed.” (pg 96)
The second trap adults tend to fall in while trying to help is “fixing the fear”. We make sure our friend’s dog stays in the garage when we visit, we leave the hall light on at night, and we wait until our child is in another room before we run the blender. While these considerate acts are not bad in and of themselves, Emily points out that they are only “band-aid solutions”, offering temporary relief, but providing no “long-term strategies” for managing fear.
We all know that fears evolve and change. The fears we had as children are not all the same ones we had in high school, and the worries and anxieties we wrestle with as adults were not even on our radars. Emily points out that what our children really need from us, in addition to comfort and reassurance, are actual strategies for managing their fears throughout their lives. She offers these three techniques:
Instead of fictionalizing fear, let’s listen to the language of childhood, and use the same imaginative power generating that fear to tame it. As Emily shared with one young child in her care, “Well, if I know my imagination is making me feel afraid, then I can use my imagination to feel powerful again.” (pg 97) She and her young friend then took turns imagining powerful ways to respond should the unrealistic fear become a reality. The responses were highly improbable (a magic balloon to make a monster fly away), but so was the fear. The strategy responded to the fear in kind, speaking the same language.
As Emily and her friend wrapped up their imaginative brainstorming session, she reiterated, “You may still feel frightened, but you can use your imagination to pretend something powerful, and that can help.”
Make a Plan
For more realistic (yet possibly still unlikely) fears, it can help to make a plan. After reassuring a child of the efforts in place to prevent the fear from becoming a reality, you can help them feel a sense of control by making a plan for how to prevent and/or respond to that fear.
In Emily’s case, her young daughter was afraid of being left alone on the busy public transit system of their new country. Rather than only reassuring her daughter that she would never let that happen, Emily made a plan with her daughter. They talked about how to safely ask strangers for help, laminated emergency cell phone numbers to carry, and covered other items to help her daughter feel powerful rather than powerless. (You’ll have to listen to the podcast to hear what eventually happened!)
It was always tempting to say, ‘That’s never going to happen,’ but her fears were rooted in the reality of not knowing.”
We can comfort children by telling them that we’ll protect them from their fears, but when we acknowledge their need to feel some sense of control, when we give them the tools for managing future fears by making a plan, we’re giving them long-term skills for long-lasting relief.
Play with Fear
As adults we often process our fears, worries, and unnerving experiences verbally. We talk to a friend, our spouse, even ourselves, recounting what happened over and over. As Emily explains in chapter 4, play is the language of childhood. For children to process experiences, they often do so through dramatic play.
Re-enacting car wrecks, funerals, and even the arrival of new siblings, children often use play to process, make sense of, and cope with big changes and frightening events. We can support them in this process by providing props, time, and space for the play, and by playing along when invited (without taking control or intruding). In many ways, we help simply by recognizing that playing with themes the child finds difficult or even frightening, is normal and not morbid or something that needs to be stopped.
Emily retells the story of a young girl in her care who was very much afraid of flying insects. Regardless of how dangerous or benign, they were all extremely frightening to her. Even the sound of distant buzzing would upset her.
Emily intentionally placed books about insects on her bookshelf and added plastic insects to the toy collection to allow the girl the opportunity to safely play with her fear. Did this immediately take away the child’s fear? Not quite. But it supported her as she processed it.
Providing children opportunities to play with the objects that make them afraid will help them learn to categorize their fears.” (pg 99)
By allowing children to use their own cultural language (play) as part of their own therapy, we help them to process fears in one of the most natural and helpful ways possible.
“When we resist the urge to dismiss or fix the seemingly irrational fears of young children, they feel understood and validated in the core of their beings.” (pg 101)
As adults, we are natural fixers and problem solvers. It’s normal and well-intentioned for us to want to dismiss and remove fears in order to comfort the children we love and teach. But we would do well to step back for a moment and remember that comfort is not always provided by removing the fear, but that we also give comfort by respecting and validating them as a person. Fears included.
Emily and I discuss this topic and others in our podcast discussion of chapters 3 and 4 of her book, Discovering the Culture of Childhood. You can read more about the read along here, and find all episodes of Not Just Cute, the Podcast, here. Emily will be answering reader questions during the last installment of the read along series, so I’d love to hear what you have on your mind. Submit your question here by using the words “Read Along” in the subject field.