Conversations: How have you helped children manage fear?

October 15, 2018
People Talking

We reached out to a variety of people and asked them how they have helped children manager fear. Here are a few of their stories.

What I learned was to always, always, keep my promises, because broken promises were the markers of their earlier life.

Instinctively, I knew that my two foster children would handle things like fear differently than the children I gave birth to. They were four-year-old twins with infectious wide grins, and while I already had a set of twins of my own, that was pretty much where the similarities started and stopped. As young as they were, my new twins had already been through a lot of tough times, and from the way they acted, it seemed like they had very little sense of control over their own lives. And with good reason.

They had already experienced neglect, abandonment, violence and grief—and it was a long road forward trying to rebuild for them the kind of bedrock that my children took for granted. Most kids seem wary about thunderstorms, but my new twins were absolutely traumatized by the sound of thunder. I don’t think they understood enough to be crunching the odds of being struck by lightning (1 in 700,000). More likely they equated loud, unexpected noise with more familiar, but no less scary, forms of trauma.

They had similar problems with separation. All of my kids had trouble on those first few days of pre-k and kindergarten, but for the twins, saying goodbye at the door was like losing a parent all over again—only daily, and with an audience of peers and adults who seemed to have it all together, unlike them.

There are over 100,000 kids currently in the country’s foster care system, and for them, security and permanence are elusive concepts at best. Helping the twins overcome fears of all kind required patience, and a different timetable than my other kids. We read books about thunder and lightning and they drew pictures for me of what they thought a storm looked like when it was defined by crayons and not ear-shattering claps of electricity cutting through the sky. We made detailed charts and graphs about the hours they would be away from me during the day when they attended pre-k and I was off teaching high school science; they even learned how to tell time in the process. What I learned was to always, always, keep my promises, because broken promises were the markers of their earlier life. And together, we all learned that love conquers fear: anytime, every time.

Lorinda Meyers, Huntington Beach CA

Sometimes fear of “other” and fear of “self” look remarkably similar.

Chiara has always had the best of both worlds, but you try telling her that on a bad day. My scholar-athlete teenager is biracial: the strong-headed product of her brainy white father and me, a black French woman who could sell ice to Eskimos (or wine to New Yorkers as the case may be.) My 16-year-old has no problem collecting friends and good grades, but don’t let that fool you: beneath her tough exterior is a kid who is still in the midst of fearful identity crisis.

So, she has me, and my skin is a deep shade of coffee while hers is closer to light hazel. She lives with me on Manhattan’s WASPy Upper East Side; we’re not rich, but with a scholarship to the city’s most academically rigorous private school, Chiara leads a life of privilege. Which brings us to a time in her youth when fear and identity went into overdrive. A prior school of hers was located down the street from a low-income housing project and my brave, outspoken girl became a bundle of nerves if she ever had to walk by or even near it.

Chiara never had an actual bad experience to make her react this way, and it finally dawned on me that it was the predominantly black population of “the projects” that set her on edge. These weren’t the black sons and daughters of Wall Streeters she went to school with, these were “thugs” (her word) who may or may not be doing illegal things in and around their rundown apartment building, and who looked more like her than she was happy to admit.

Her fear was identity-based, and for a long time it really pissed me off. Who was she to judge a person by their skin color when her own journey was complicated enough by other people’s bias? She feared poor black people because visually they reflected part of her that she didn’t understand or relate to, and when at long last we finally had ‘the conversation,’ we managed to get to the bottom of some of this.

Chiara knows the polarizing demands of simultaneously being an athlete and a scholar and she manages it to her benefit; so we talked about ways she could similarly manage the polarizing demands of being both black and white. Fear of stereotypes and expectations and racism all came spilling out that night as we sat together in our little one-bedroom apartment surrounded by buildings filled with the city’s richest residents. And every day since then we’ve progressed towards making peace with those fears and those polarities. Sometimes fear of “other” and fear of “self” look remarkably similar.

—Aly Sene-Dorsi, NYC

With no children of my own, my nieces and nephews are my posterity.

Holidays are kind of my thing—and Halloween has got to be up there with my favorites. I am an aunt, and for me this is a beloved vocation. With no children of my own, my nieces and nephews are my posterity, and that is how I treat them. So, taking my nieces out for Halloween is among my most prized annual rituals. I’ve dressed them as black-eyed roller derby girls with ripped t-shirts, striped leg warmers, and roller blades; I’ve hand-made costumes to help them morph into Clara from the Nutcracker and Ariel from The Little Mermaid. I get the whole costume appeal—it’s a chance to be someone else for the night. But I’ve also noticed a disturbing trend among the teenagers who horn in on this annual rite of passage meant for younger kids.

It’s not enough that they muscle in on the candy, but they also seem to be taking an increasingly menacing, masked approach to the night, channeling the year’s latest scary cinematic horrors and trying their best to freak out a fragile age group on their annual late night out. Loping around behind a scary mask seems to bring out the worst in people—not so unlike online trolls from the comments section or the people who cut you off on the highway. If there was any accountability for their actions I suspect they’d be far less likely to do it.

Just as my nieces channel Clara’s inner ballerina or Ariel’s inner mermaid, so too do the hormonally raging big kids channel the hijinx of the fiends they dress as. It’s like they’re giving themselves license to be bad guys for the night, and worse yet, they’re not picking on kids their own size. So, last year I adopted the role of bad-ass body guard and brought along with me two high-wattage flashlights which I used liberally during the night to shine directly into the eyes of masked hooligans (most of them taller than me) who came too close to our invisible “safety bubble” with their antics. When anyone talked back or tried to escalate, I told them my husband is a cop (I’m not married) and that he was a half block down the street catching up to us. Boom.

I didn’t have to cover my face to wear a mask that night. I was a warrior who could handle the most fearsome would-be trolls of Halloween, and my nieces got to see me wear a costume of pure fearlessness.

Melissa Webb, Sacramento

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