TOC Next Previous


Your infant or toddler likely tends to react to
the loudness of thunder. If thunder and lightning are a little frightening to you,
this is communicated to your child. If, however, you let your child know
thunder is natural, talk about the lightning and are positive about the storm, your
child gradually learns to experience little discomfort during storms. An
unusually loud thunderclap may still be startling, but there is no unreasonable
fear of storms. Children who are afraid of storms have typically learned this
fear from adults who are also afraid of storms. The same learning goes on with
the fear of snakes and spiders. Adults learn the fears from other adults when
young and then in turn pass them along to their children.

A fear of snakes is something you probably want
your children to develop. After your children get a little older, it may be
useful to teach them to differentiate between harmful snakes and unharmful
snakes. The same rationale holds for spiders. Interestingly, a negative or fear
reaction to spiders is helpful when children grow up and are expected to keep
living areas clean. Cobwebs are a real problem and some fear of spiders partly
makes adults insistent cobwebs be cleaned up. You teach your children to be a
little afraid of germs, not to get dirt in their mouths, and to get clean after
getting dirty. This is helpful in much the same way a fear of spiders and the
association with cobwebs is helpful.

Thus, you see almost all fears are taught. Some
fears are helpful in terms of self-protection and future adjustment. Other
fears, however, are quite debilitating. In fact, some people become so afraid
they do not go out of their houses, do not talk with others, cannot tolerate
meeting strangers, keep themselves and their living areas antiseptically clean,
or are irrationally afraid of all dogs.

Although most fears are learned, they are not
necessarily taught to children by parents. For example, a young girl developed
a fear of flying birds in a somewhat unusual way. She was playing in the yard
one day and approached a baby bird lying on the ground. Just as she got to the baby
bird, the mother bird swooped down to protect her baby. Although the mother
bird did not attack her, the girl thought the bird was going to. She became
terrified and ran into the house. Her mother told her she should leave baby
birds alone since mother birds are sometimes quite protective, and because she might
injure the baby bird. Her terror had been so intense the child unconsciously
generalized the fear to all flying birds. Although she now knows rationally it
is unlikely a flying bird will hurt her, the fear remains. Many fears are
learned through such life experiences.

In addition to fears learned through
identification with the fears of adults, through direct teaching by adults, and
through unusual life situations, fears arise when children confuse possibility
with probability. The idea may be best understood through an example.

The parents of a seven-year-old notice he is
developing an unreasonable fear of tornadoes. He asks a lot of questions about
tornadoes, and becomes apprehensive every time there is a storm or forecast of
a storm. At school, there have been discussions about tornadoes, other children
have talked about tornadoes they have presumably heard of, and there have been
tornado alerts and drills. All of this has raised in the child’s mind the
possibility of being involved in a tornado and being hurt or killed as a result
of one. For this child, the fear of tornadoes is very real. And it is possible the
child becomes involved in a tornado. The probability of this happening, though,
is extremely low. His fear comes from confusing possibility with probability.
Here are other examples: A small child reacts intensely when left with the baby-sitter.
Is the child afraid of the baby-sitter? Maybe a little. More likely, though, she
is afraid her parents may abandon her. The possibility of being abandoned and
the possibility of being harmed by the baby-sitter are untempered by the
probability of either event. Yes, an occasional child is attacked by a dog,
sometimes one or both parents are killed in accidents, some people do go to the
hospital and die, occasionally physicians do extremely painful things to
children, airplanes do sometimes crash, sometimes houses do burn down or are
destroyed by tornadoes, and so on. Life is full of possible danger and harm. Most
everyone knows this, but most adults go through life giving little thought to
possible harms and dangers since they know the probability of the worst
happening is extremely low. Their fears are tempered by their judgment of
probability. As children grow, possible harm and possible disaster gradually
come under the influence of probability determinations.

How do you as a parent help your children learn
this distinction? First, they learn a lot about probability all by themselves,
through life experience. Second, occasionally you talk directly with them about
the idea of probability. For young children, it is very important not to
confuse them or give explanations beyond their ability to understand. For
example, your preschooler asks if you are going to crash when you are driving
on a snowy day. Do you explain to your child the probability of wrecking is
fairly low although the possibility of crashing does exist? No, you simply tell
the child you are not going to wreck and everything is going to be fine. What
if you do wreck? Well, this is just one of those things you deal with if it
happens. Similarly, your child asks you if lightning is going to hit the house
and burn it down. You say, “No. There is no reason to worry.”
Children learn you are not always right, but they also learn things usually
turn out as you say.

To summarize about the development of fear: Few
fears are innate. Almost all fears are learned. Many are picked up from parents
who are afraid. Some fears are taught unintentionally through the behavior of
adults. Some fears are learned through negative life experiences. Most fears
involve an unconscious equating of possibility with probability. Fear is truly
one of the most difficult issues confronted by parents. Helping children deal
with fear in a healthy way is one of the most frequently mishandled
parent/child issues.

TOC Next Previous