Teaching Your Children to Handle Fear

JackoLanternIn the month of Halloween, I have decided to muse on fear. Fear is not always a terrible thing. It can be a great motivator and a spur to positive action. But more often it freezes us into immobility and indecision and it can even cause us to make less than intelligent choices. We all know this, and yet occasionally fear sneaks up from the side and gets us even when we think we are prepared. Keep in mind I am not talking about fear as a thrill here (scary movies, stories, etc.) but real fears.

A friend once asked me, “What scares you the most?” I pondered this for a bit, because I realized at that moment that the things that scared me in my youth are not the things that scared me as an adult, or even what scares me now. I guess the corollary to that question for me would always be, “What means the most to you?” Because that is my fear and always has been…losing the things or more specifically the people who mean the most to me. When you marry, you add something important to that list and it stays there, don’t get me wrong. But I submit that when you have children that list grows and the thought of losing your child or children eclipses everything else on it.

So, how do we handle the fear and how do we teach our children to handle fear as well?

When Daughter 2 was about three, she had a horrible experience. She woke to find a moth flying around in her room and casting the scariest shadows ever from her nightlight on the ceiling and walls. She shrieked like a banshee and of course we leapt out of bed to go and save her. Daddy caught the moth and took it away and Mommy held her until she stopped crying and we both reassured her that it was just a little moth who had gotten lost and now was where it belonged. We thought we had handled it very well.

Little did we know…for the next three weeks she would wake in the wee hours of the night screaming about the monsters in her room. We tried “monster spray” and reassurances and everything else we could think of to no avail. Of course, when you are awakened like that in the middle of the night your adrenaline revs up and so neither of us was getting much sleep. It aggravated my SVT (a form of tachycardia caused by having an extra electrical circuit in my heart) and I started having attacks due to the stress and lack of rest.

Finally, having exhausted all of the child rearing book suggestions I knew, I sat her down and said, “You cannot keep doing this. You know there is nothing in your room and you are going to have to control this fear you are having for no real reason. It isn’t something Daddy and I can do for you and it is making me ill from lack of sleep. From now on, we are going to expect you to stay very quiet if you wake in the night like this. Turn on your light, look at a book if you need to, but go back to sleep and know that we are in the next room if you really need us; like if you are sick, but this has to stop.” Her Dad supported me and we gave her plenty of hugs along with the ultimatum. She cried a bit and we talked some more and that night, if she woke she did not come tell us about it.  She found her strategy, used it and was soon sleeping through the night with no problem.

Would this work with every child? I have no idea, but I have found through over twenty years of child rearing that honest, transparent conversation sets many fears at rest. Did you know that when they hear a friend’s parents are divorcing, they automatically fear that you will do that too? It is only natural. That is why it makes sense to talk about it and set their fears to rest even if they don’t admit they have them. When someone they know has a death in the family, or worse, someone they know passes,your matter of fact assurances of your faith and what happens after we die and all of that are nothing to put off. They need the reassurance. Sexual issues, profanity, lying…all of this stuff should be things you are all talking about and sharing your belief system in the process in a caring and loving way. If you aren’t sharing your belief system from an early age, they will pick up someone else’s. We all need one, and human nature abhors a vacuum.

“They don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” This was one of the first things I heard when I entered the non-profit world and it is a fundamental truth no matter who you are sharing your knowledge with. When your children feel loved and secure, you can meet fears head on just by talking about them. Will this make all of the scary things in the world go away? Of course not. But it will give them a strategy of reaching out to people they trust when they are afraid and not letting those fears isolate or immobilize them.

Now let’s go out there and scare some Trick or Treaters! 🙂

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