As parents we are given the responsibility of teaching our children to be confident, capable and productive citizens. This task is difficult given that we live in a fearful world. We need to keep our children safe from danger while tempering our own fears.
Children are extremely sensitive to the emotional response of their parents to various situations, and will respond in kind: they become fearful in varying degrees, ranging from healthy caution to paralyzing fear, largely based on cues received from those around them. For instance:
It is good to be cautious of strangers, but one must be careful not to exaggerate the sense of danger where it is unwarranted. Approaching the topic of stranger danger can be done in a matter of fact way: “Some people are bad; but most people are good. It is okay to say hi when a stranger says hello, but never go with someone you don’t know unless mommy or daddy tells you that it’s okay…”
A few weeks ago I was in a public restroom and a woman in the stall next to me said to her child: “You stay right with me. If you don’t, someone is going to steal you and you will never see mommy or daddy again. Do you want that to happen?!” A child who is fearful of all strangers becomes immobilized in the face of new situations involving other people.
Getting a shot is another fear common among children. Needles are scary to many of us. The trick is to be honest and matter of fact about the object of fear, sharing with your child, “I don’t like getting shots either because they hurt, but only for a minute. They don’t hurt as much as when you stub your toe, or bite your tongue. I wish you didn’t have to get a shot too, but shots are so people don’t get very bad sickness, and to help people get better…”
As parents we sometimes say things we ought not to say either because we haven’t thought it through, or because we have reached the end of our rope. I have heard a parent telling a child that if they are not good, the doctor is going to give them a shot! Needless to say, this child is terrified of going to the doctor. Have you noticed that when your child receives a vaccination, the physician is nowhere to be seen? Many doctors purposely remove themselves from the situation so as not to be so closely associated with the infliction of pain.
I happen to be afraid of open heights. Being the mother of four sons, I had to stretch the limits of my bravery to the negligible point of stupidity on more than one occasion. I knew I was in trouble when my one-year old was climbing the arched ladder at the playground.
Being fearful myself of grated stairs and sewer drains, I knew I did not want him to suffer the incapacitation of my fear. I bit my tongue and held my breath until he reached his destination, standing ready to catch him should he fall. Boys can be fool-hardy creatures, climbing to the top of a 20 foot tree at the age of five, jumping off a huge rock into the river when they are 12.
I had to force myself to watch the kids graduate from one level of difficulty to the next without my interference, at times against my better judgment. Thankfully they were able to grow into the confident, skilled climbers that they are today. They are able to experience a whole world which remains inaccessible to me, as I remain rooted in fear at the foot of a mountain while they scamper up mighty peaks. RDW (11-6-09)