Helping Children Cope with Fear
“Nooooooo!” he shouted, a fearful tone in his squeaky voice.
If you read my last installment, you will know that when my five-year-old son and I discuss what we’re doing each day, he sometimes sees the glass as half empty. But this wasn’t one of those times. Today we would be seeing friends he’d been asking to see for weeks. Today we would be going to a place he loves: a skate park and playground halfway along a bridge that crosses the bay. Until recently, he’d ask me every day whether we could go to that skate park. We go there a lot!
I was surprised at his reaction. This wasn’t a complaint. He explained, “I’m frightened of going there!” You see, partway along the bridge, the road lifts up to allow boats to pass through. A loud siren sounds, barriers come down, red flashing lights warn everyone that the bridge is about to open…. In the many years since it was built, it has never once swallowed anyone up. But still, it is a little disconcerting to have the ground that was, only moments ago, beneath your feet form a great chasm and lift into the air.
I remembered that the last few times we’d visited the bridge park, my little boy expressed worries about falling through into the fathomless sea below. The last time we went, he crossed over with his eyes closed, while I led the way. Today his fears peaked, and he asked plaintively, “Please can we not go there?”
Children are frightened of all sorts of things. It’s understandable. The world is large and they are only small. If you can’t swim, the prospect of falling into a grey, churning sea is terrifying. Come to think of it, even if you can swim it’s pretty scary.
When my eldest was very young, mannequins were high on her list of fears. Spiders; the wind; sudden, loud noises; sleeping alone; the creaking of the radiators as the heating kicks on; the dark—all of these have been my children’s fears at one time or another. With my first child I didn’t know that I couldn’t logic her out of her fears. I didn’t know that I couldn’t convince her to let go of fear and be brave. I didn’t know that I couldn’t just explain that the mannequins wouldn’t move and haunt her with their empty eyes (even though I wasn’t really sure of that myself, you know). I tried all of those things, and still she cried. Still she clung to me.
Today my son’s older sister felt frustrated with him. She’s grown out of many of her fears, and the prospect of missing out on seeing friends was too much for her. “Oh, stop being silly! It’ll be fine.” Her reaction was all too familiar. From the experience of saying similar things in the past, I knew it wouldn’t work. “Ugh. You always ruin everything!” she raged. And although I’ve never said those words to my son, I have certainly experienced the exasperation of having to go to considerable lengths to work around the fears of a small child.
Fortunately, we can be completely flexible in our plans. So, sure, let’s go somewhere else. Fortunately, our friends are flexible too, and they were happy to change the location of our meet-up. Everyone was happy.
Two summers ago my family went for a camping holiday on a remote and beautiful Scottish island. We did a lot of hiking, and on one such hike, the steady wind picked up to be gale force strength. We walked along a hillside, the land sloping steeply and dramatically down into the dangerous blue and white swells of the angry Atlantic Ocean. It’s not only children who have fears. I, too, have fears. I am frightened of cliffs, of falling into the sea, of my children being dragged off a hillside by a strong wind. Normally I am able to use coping mechanisms to get through my fear and enjoy a hike. That day, the wind was too strong, the ocean too threatening, my children too small and vulnerable… and I… I realized I was impotent in the face of such forces of nature. As the wind picked up speed, tears wicked from my cheeks. I knelt with shaking legs, and pressed my body to the hillside. Beneath my tear-stained cheek, tiny blades of grass and resilient flowers shook as my body spasmed in fear. “Just get them to lower ground,” I shouted. Paralysed with fear, ashamed of what my children were witnessing, my dry mouth clamped shut and I cried.
Minutes passed slowly as the wind whistled and gusted around my bare head. After taking the children to safety, my sure-footed husband returned to me, knelt beside me and uttered soothing words. So close I could feel the warmth of his humid breath on my ear, he told me everything would be fine, to just crawl down the hillside toward the valley. I could take my time. The children were fine. Gradually, I moved. I crawled down the hill, shielding my peripheral vision from the sea’s threatening breakers and made it to the valley. My children hugged me. They offered me chocolate. They told me they were fine and I would be too.
Nothing they could have said would have stopped me from feeling afraid. They didn’t tell me I was being silly. They didn’t explain why my fears were irrational. They accepted me and respected me and reassured me. They knew that, just like my son and his fear of the bridge that opens, I might get over my fear one day, or I might not.
Because, as with so many things, the antidote to fear is love.