Being Brave Together

October 16, 2018
Fear

We all want fearless kids, right? Little people who can jump off high dives, check under their own beds for monsters, and brave their way through Halloween night. So how do we help them build up the resilience they’re going to need to do just that?

Developing our kids’ internal compass

Kara Fic leans on lessons learned from her own childhood as she now raises two daughters, one of whom was recently heading out the door on her first solo commute to a school across town. Kara says she slipped her camping compass into the 11-year-old’s hand as she ventured out: “She’s ready for this new challenge,” says Kara, “but it’s still a big city. The compass is really just there as a backup in case she gets disoriented—and as a reminder that she’s navigated denser forests than this.”

Kara refers to the many campouts her family has taken together over the years when her daughters were first earning their stripes as Girl Scouts—and teaching the boys a thing or two about bravery in the process. Bears, bees, rain and rations toughened up the girls, Kara explains, as they did during her own Girl Scout days. She’s happy about how her daughters’ wilderness training now spills over into their city life—and into their fear management in general.

But Kara also recounts early years when her girls wouldn’t even consider an overnight spent outdoors: “The smallest sound or movement in the bushes terrified them. They were more convinced it was a ghost than a wild animal. At least an animal would have made sense!” So how did Kara’s daughter transform from that timid, little kid and into the big, brave one embarking on a cross-town trek that’s equal parts exciting and scary? How do any of our kids overcome fear?

Just what are you so afraid of?

A child’s interior life can be something of a mysterious place. Kids’ fears appear seemingly out of nowhere—and with good reasons. As they develop critical thinking, children’s brains are increasingly matching up cause-and-effect; what’s real vs. invented. Their imaginations are most creative in these earliest years, and for every actual threat out there, kids are likely to conjure ones that feel even scarier. Some of those fears make sense (stranger danger), some are exaggerated, (fear of the new), and plenty are flat-out irrational (ghosts); children rarely differentiate between these categories.

Young children tend to fear things that are unexpected or make them feel unsafe: loud noises, doctors, getting lost, dogs, thunderstorms, the dark. As they mature, fears emerge that are more based in failure: rejection by peers, tests, public speaking, acquiring difficult new skills.

And just when are you afraid of it?

There’s no clear timetable for when certain fears emerge or can be mastered, so more than anything, our job as parents is to remain mindful as our kids carve out their unique path toward bravery, and be ready to coax—not compel—them along that journey.

That was Kara’s tactic as she and her husband cajoled their girls into their first camp-out. The first attempt was a no-go: too much too soon. A mid-summer overnighter in Harriman State Park was scrapped the day before the trip when the girls became too anxious. But hearing classmates bragging about a recent campout they had with their Cub Scout troop was eventually all the inspiration they needed: anything boys could do, they could do better.

Now tweens, with one in middle school, the sisters have nearly a dozen campouts to their name and are well on their way to building the kind of resilience we all want for our kids. But even so, they can still be wracked by the kind of nightmares they thought they had mastered in 3rd grade. While Kara’s oldest daughter might now be 11, she can still have days when she feels nine or even six.

Our words of encouragement will one day be the voice in their head when we’re not there serving as cheerleaders.

Acknowledging their fearful feelings

Kara understands what she’s seeing when this happens, and she reassures the girls that whatever age they are—or feel—she’s been through it too, and she’s there to help them master their fears. Our words of encouragement will one day be the voice in their head when we’re not there serving as cheerleaders. We can share worries as a family and explain ways that we ourselves are working to manage our own fears. We can also let them know when they’re being brave, and give them safe spaces to be brave.

Inoculating our kids against fear

Many of our children’s phobias can be overcome with a kind of exposure therapy, creating small, manageable access to the thing that scares them—for Kara’s girls it was camping outdoors. Like the Fic family, we can incrementally increase our kids’ exposure until their fight-or-flight reactions decrease in measure with their growing familiarity. Kara oversees this white-knuckling process by modeling the kind of behavior she hopes to inspire in her daughters. If mom can fearlessly sleep in a tent, cook dinner over a campfire, and navigate miles of trails, anyone can!

Practice getting practical

Fear puts our kids into a very emotional place, and to help balance that out we can inject a bit of logic, encouraging them to gather information about their phobias. For instance, a good way to de-fang fear of snakes is by turning it into a research project. Go online together, learn more about the slithery reptile and watch fear quickly turn into fascination. A tri-fold poster board covered in facts and photos of a dozen snake species could put some age-old fears to rest, and just possibly become kindling for a future science fair project.

Talking with our kids about safety plans in place at their school and within our family can help build up their confidence when the next news cycle serves up frightening stories about terrorism, extreme weather events or school shootings. CommonSenseMedia.org is a trusted resource for parents who want to calibrate the age-appropriateness of everything from potentially scary books and movies to video games and TV shows.

Partner with our kids

While our first instinct may be to swoop in and “fix it.” We better serve our children by enlisting them as part of the solution when fears emerge. Asking for their ideas helps kids feel more in control of what can otherwise be something like a rollercoaster.

Together we name and discuss their fearful feelings so our kids become more familiar with the physical/emotional signs associated with them. We can then learn calming techniques like deep breathing, exercise and yoga. The first time the Fic family heard the unmistakable sound of bears outside their tent became the perfect moment to put some of their much-practiced deep breathing exercises to work.

Kids can show their fears who’s boss by giving the ridiculous nicknames or goofy visualizations.

That’s just silly

Harry Potter and his Hogwarts classmates confronted their darkest fears with the “Riddikulus” spell, turning scary things into something silly: like a giant, hairy spider suddenly slipping around on roller skates. We can encourage our kids to do likewise, showing their fears who’s boss by giving them ridiculous nicknames or goofy visualizations. Sharing stories from our own childhoods helps as well, pointing out how we can now look back on scary kid things fearlessly, and help our sons and daughters to imagine themselves doing the same.

Enlist reinforcements

Of course, not all fears can be work-shopped away within the walls of our homes: if typical childhood fears seem to be escalating into serious phobias or generalized anxiety, it’s useful to engage professional assistance. But no matter when, or how, or how much our children experience fear, we can support our kids by bringing our A-game for patience and empathy, letting our sons and daughters know that we’re in this for the long haul.

When Kara greeted her daughter after her maiden voyage solo across town, she asked if the compass had proven useful. “Compass?” replied her daughter, until suddenly recalling Kara’s morning gesture. “Ohhhh: this!” she said brightly, pulling it from a backpack pocket and plopping it into her hand. “Sorry mom. I saw a friend on my way to school and forgot all about it.”

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