Why Childhood Fears Can Be A Good Thing
My six-year old has developed a fear of the dark. It’s natural, I know, and so we are doing what he needs to help him through it. He has six – yes, six – night lights in his bedroom and we don’t belittle his fear. We all had childhood fears, some of us have adult ones too, so we know how it feels.
Fear is a positive thing though. It doesn’t feel like it at the time but overcoming a fear teaches us so much. Every fear that your child overcomes is making them stronger. And maybe the biggest lesson fear teaches children is that things are rarely as bad as they seem.
When I was about three I was terrified of “the orange blob monsters” that came out at night. Every evening I would start talking about them and insisting that I wasn’t left alone, lest they come for me. I had a very real fear of these creatures that seemed to appear from nowhere and hover about, waiting to strike. This went on for months.
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One day I was out with my mother and asked her why a man was riding a horse on the pavement. My mother, seeing me point to a guy on a bike, realised that I was having trouble seeing properly. A trip to the opticians resulted in a prescription of short sightedness. As soon as I put those ugly NHS glasses on everything became clear. The “orange blob monsters” I had been so terrified of were just street lights. Now that they were no longer blurry I could see what they were and no longer feared them.
Some fears, of course, are entirely rational and can’t be overcome – primal instincts and indicators of danger. The trick is to distinguish between fear and worry.
Worrying about a possible outcome can lead to fear. My son is afraid of the dark, not because it is dark per se, but because he is worried about what might be lurking in the shadows.
One way to overcome that fear is to help him see that there is nothing different in his bedroom at night. It is the same room, the same bed, all his toys are still there, and the darkness itself is nothing to fear. He can’t distinguish between fear and worry right now so it will take time, but he’ll get there. It seems like a simple distinction to make, but it isn’t.
To give another example, many people are afraid of heights. I include myself in that group. I can happily go to the top of a tall building or get in a plane, but I go all wobbly legged if I have to go up a ladder to clear out the guttering. The problem isn’t the height, it’s the worry of possible outcomes. I worry about falling. Or more accurately, as someone once said, “It’s not the falling I’m afraid of, it’s the landing.”
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So, what can I learn from this fear? Well, if I never go up a ladder, nothing. If I force myself to give it a go, I take myself out of my comfort zone. When I’ve cleared out the guttering and not fallen to my death I find that my fear of doing so has subsided a little. I have met the challenge and gained a new skill.
In the scenario of my son being afraid of the dark I could let him sleep with the main light on but then he won’t learn that darkness is OK. So, he has the main light off and his night lights on. By increments he will become accustomed to the dark; by increments I will become more relaxed about standing on wobbly chairs to change light bulbs.
By pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zones, my son and I will both learn that we are stronger than we think. Fear, or more precisely overcoming fear, teaches us that we have the strength to change the world around us. It might seem small to an adult but being afraid of the dark can mean a child is terrified of something that happens every day.
By overcoming that fear they have changed the world that they live in. They have reclaimed the dark from the monsters.
As well as providing the six night lights to help my son with his fear we talk to him about it. It’s tempting to avoid the issue so as not to stir up any negative emotions, but I believe that fear grows best in isolation. It’s difficult sometimes but talking about fears, bringing them into the light, can help diminish them.
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We talk to our son about the “best case scenario”. Fears based on worries have a worst-case scenario so there must be a best-case scenario. For my son the dark may hold all sorts of frightening things, but, after talking to him, he decided that the dark would also be essential if you had a pet owl. It hasn’t removed his fear entirely, but he now thinks the dark is needed for the owls and foxes and other nocturnal animals. He still doesn’t like it, but he accepts it.
Childhood fears can be as distressing for parents as for the kids but fear is a part of life. Fear doesn’t have to be a bad thing. I’m trying to embrace my fears, face them, and get stronger. I’m trying to help my son do the same. Having said all of that I’m still not going near that massive spider in the bathroom.