Making friends with fear children

Fear is a feeling that we all experience. It takes many forms and it can be disruptive and terrifying. At Resilience in Kids, we spend a lot of time speaking with parents and children about fear and one of our core beliefs is that fear is here to be befriended and not to be confronted.

But what is fear and what happens in our bodies when we experience fear? Why do we talk about ‘making friends with fear’ rather than ‘facing fear’? And what can we do to help our children make friends with fear?

Fear is one of our basic emotions – it is innate and hard-wired and is automatically and unconsciously triggered by our brains in response to a threat. It’s like our internal alarm system.

Fear is designed to keep us alive – it’s how we react to anything that threatens our survival. When we feel threatened, our brain triggers the fight or flight response (or, fight, flight, faint, freeze response).

Our emotions, how we feel physically, our thoughts and our behaviours are all connected, so when we experience this response it can lead to physical symptoms, such as sweaty palms, pounding heart, butterflies. This can lead to thoughts such as “I’m really going to muck up!” “I’d better not get on my bike again in case I fall off” which can lead to behaviours such as whingeing, clinging or avoidance. Kids are far more likely to show us they are afraid than tell us.

Fear often disguises itself as other emotions, such as anger, or personality traits such as arrogance or perfectionism. It can also lead to worry and anxiety.

But here’s the thing. Our internal alarm doesn’t just go off when our survival is at risk, it also goes off when there is nothing to be afraid off. It responds to real and perceived threats in the same way. And this is where things can become tricky for kids (and adults!)

There’s no doubt that some things are fearful and it is wholly appropriate for the fight or flight response to be triggered – thinking of entering the lions’ den at the zoo? Not a good idea! Thinking of cycling down a 3-lane freeway? Also not a good idea! “Thanks brain for alerting us to this!”

But others aren’t and sometimes our brain is unable to discern between the two. Perhaps your child is afraid of a scary monster in a movie, or maybe they’re nervous about netball trials. These are not life threatening situations. “Thanks brain, but I’ve got this!”

Some children are more fearful than others. There are a range of reasons for this, including genetics, parental anxiety, overprotective parenting or the occurrence of a significant event in a child’s life.

Fear is disruptive – it makes us feel uncomfortable and many of us don’t enjoy the physical symptoms, thoughts and behaviours that accompany it. As a result, we are expected to either fight it, or numb, suppress or silence it.

But is this the right thing to do given fear is here to keep us alive? Surely rather than ‘facing our fears’ there is an opportunity for us to ‘make friends with our fears’, to thank our brains for their efforts in keeping us alive and to bring fear alongside us? We wouldn’t take down our internal alarm system at home because it makes an annoying sound from time to time, so why would we look to do this to ourselves?

Fear is also an important part of children’s growth and development. It is a normal part of growing up and is how children make sense of the world around them. Acknowledging and embracing fears can also build confidence in children as they learn that whatever it was they were fearful of doesn’t need to stop them in their tracks.

So knowing all of this, what can we do to help kids make friends with fear?

Making friends with fear
  1. Knowledge is power – understanding the neuroscience of fear, including what is happening in their brains and bodies when they feel afraid can reduce the power of fear. Take some time to explain this to your child.

  2. Explore with your child where they experience feelings of fear in their body. Draw a picture of a body and encourage them draw their sweaty palms, butterflies, light-headedness – whatever fear feels like for them. This is different in different children, this is OK!

  3. Teach them about the power of ‘pause’. Of course if they are in immediate danger they need to move somewhere safe quickly! But if they aren’t in immediate danger, it’s about pausing and assessing the situation.

  4. Then, teach them to be curious. Give them a simple approach to help them decide for themselves whether this is a fear to befriend. What is happening? Will this involve breaking any rules? Will anyone be hurt? Does it feel right? Is it safe and healthy?

  5. When they are feeling afraid, sit with them. Show them empathy and ensure they feel safe and comforted.  Avoid judgement or trying to fix whatever is going on, and avoid excessive reassurance.

  6. Externalise and personify fear. Talking about it helps, but you can also give it a character and a name. “Bob the worrier is back!” “Freddie fear is making an appearance!” You can introduce these characters, and whatever it is your child is afraid of, in play or in the stories you read or create with your child.

  7. Encourage your child to do something when they experience fear. Exercise is particularly beneficial as exercising burns up fight or flight chemicals and produces positive chemicals like endorphins.

  8. Encourage your child to talk about their fears – ideally to you, but if not to another trusted adult. This might be their teacher, a school counsellor, an aunt or grandparent or a friend.

  9. Take your child’s fears seriously, regardless of how silly they might seem to you. Whilst you know that monsters don’t exist or that inanimate objects can’t come to life, these fears are very real for your child. Teasing them or forcing them to make friends with them will never help. Overreacting  is also often unhelpful.

  10. Teach your child to show themselves compassion. Encourage them to be kind to themselves, to acknowledge that they’re not alone in whatever it is they are experiencing – many children share the same fear – and to teach them the power of mindfulness.

None of this is simple. To make friends with fear our kids need to be courageous. Sometimes fears get out of hand and start to disproportionately affect our kids’ lives, and not in a good way. It’s always important to seek support in these instances. Speak to your child’s GP.

Creative ideas of things you can do with your children

Suggested activities:

  1. Explain the neuroscience of fear to your child. Don’t wait for the next time they experience fear, include it in one of your upcoming daily chats.

  2. When you child experiences fear, or any emotion for that matter, ask them what this feels like in their body. If it had a colour, what would it be? What would it sound like? What animal would it be?

  3. Encourage your child to be open with you about what they are afraid of. Practise showing them empathy and avoid judging them or moving into problem solving mode.

Susie Mogg