I’m a fear specialist who has a modern approach to fear that you may have never considered before. Namely I see fear not as an enemy or a hinderance that holds us back, but rather as a friend and asset here to help us come alive and bring our A game to everything we do. I also believe when you’re feeling fear, that’s a sign you’re stepping out of your comfort zone, and thus you’re on the right track toward learning something new. If it’s anything but these things for your child, pay attention then, and let’s turn this around.
When I work with adults who have a problem with fear or anxiety, we can always trace it back to: if they learned early on, from a parent, teacher, influencer or society in general, that fear is a bad thing. The first time your kid says “I’m afraid” if they’re met with “there’s nothing to be afraid of” or ‘don’t let fear hold you back,” while well meaning, what this does is teach that child that fear isn’t real, which it most certainly is, or that it’s something to be ashamed of, which it most certainly is not. We all feel fear, it’s perfectly normal and natural to feel it, and in fact, it’s with us nearly every moment of every day. So, any kind of message you give a kid, that it’s not ok to feel fear, is something I call “fear shaming,” and it will be the thing you’ll need to address if you want your kid to thrive not despite the inevitability of fear, but because of the fear.
If works like this: if you fear shame them: in order to get your approval, they’ll either get really good at avoiding fear, in which case they don’t do scary things- which if course everything is. Or they’ll fight fear, causing them to be at war with themselves. Or they’ll learn to ignore fear, which works temporarily to lesson fear, but over time it’s at the cost of their ability to have an honest relationship with their emotions, ultimately harming their mental and physical health, relationships, performance and more.
Not only that it leads to ironically, excessive fear. Maybe you’ve heard the term: whatever you resist, persists? Or whatever you try to control winds up controlling you? Exactly. When a child spends their lives trying to control or overcome fear, that war over time can not only consume their lives, but that un-dealt with fear, now pushed down and stored in their system, starts to recirculate round and round in their bodies and minds, until they’re pickled in it.
Ok then, here’s what to teach them instead, which is the opposite of fear shaming. You ready?
Next time your kid says ‘I’m afraid’ your job from now on is to say one of the following things:
Life is a scary experience isn’t it?
Or: What does it feel like to be afraid?
Let me give you an example.
I had a client who took his son to a water park. The boy was afraid to go on the big water slide, saying “It’s scary!” Prior to learning these simple tricks, the dad would say things like ‘there’s nothing to be afraid of. See, everyone who does it is ok. It’s very safe” which is indeed, fear shaming.
Here’s what he could have said instead: “yes, the water slide is very scary”- which of course, it is. He could continue with: “the slide is actually designed to be scary- because the fear is what makes it fun. But, we’re not always in the mood for fear, are we?”
He could also learn to inquire, “are you in the mood for fear right now?” Now, the child may say, “I’m not in the mood for fear.” In which case the dad can finish with, “ok, let me know if you change your mind.”
Taking it a step further, this is also a great opportunity to teach your child how to have an honest relationship with fear, which is accomplished by helping him feel it, versus thinking about it. We are in the habit of dealing with emotions intellectually, like they’re a math equation that needs to be figured out and solved. Instead, teach your child to deal with his emotions, emotionally, which is more effective and will set him up to be an emotionally healthy adult.
You see, fear isn’t in your mind, it’s a feeling of discomfort in your body. Given this, the dad might say: “how does it feel to be scared right now?” or “let’s stand here and be scared together.” What happens then, because you’re both dealing with your fear emotionally- by feeling it- and you’re not trying to get rid of it in any way- it will run its course rather quickly. This has actually been proven by science. If you’re willing to feel it, fear and all the associated cortisol, adrenaline and more will come into, through and out of your system in no more than 10-90 seconds, and then will let go of you. Voila., your child will feel less fear, and likely be more interested in getting on the water slide.
And that’s it. In conclusion, consider the child who seems and acts fearless. Actually, that child isn’t fearless, what’s happening is he enjoys feeling fear, so it doesn’t feel like fear at all but rather excitement and aliveness. That’s you’re aiming for. So, anything you can do to shift your language so that fear is perceived as a good thing -not something to be fought or let go of, but rather to be savored- that’s how you’ll know you’re on the right track.