Monday, March 14, 2011

Weekly Column: Real, Big Fears

With everything happening in Japan right now, we're getting a big dose of practice in this area, so I think you all might be dealing with the same things.  It's hard for kids to ignore what they see on tv of such devastation, and it's hard for ME to turn it off just to keep the kids in the dark -- I want to know what's happening.  But acknowledging the reality of the earthquake and resultant emergencies will, I think, help our kids work through it.  Honestly, carefully, and with compassion.  How have you handled this fearsome news with your family?

I find it very easy to acknowledge my daughters’ fears when they’re expressed over something I’ve feared, myself. 
Darkness, spiders, monsters – I can vividly remember being afraid of these things as a little girl, so they’re simple matters for me to understand.  (Yes, two out of the three things on that list are still frightening to me, but that’s not the point.)  I respect the reality of those fears, address them with sincerity, and try to help my children move past them.  I’ve employed night-lights, silly stories, and protective teddy bears, using much time and energy.
It can seem like a lot of fuss over nothing, come to think of it.  But it’s not.
It’s so important to respect the worries and fears of our children as being legitimate.  No, thunder will not cause the sky to fall.  But if your child has that worry, it’s a real issue to her.  It can’t be brushed away with careless instructions to ‘stop crying’ or ‘be a big girl’.  Her imagination IS being big, and it’s terrifying her. 
If there’s really nothing to fear, then she should be able to trust in her parents to explain why.  To show her the truth and to comfort her in the meantime.  Otherwise, her fears will not only consist of the original worry, but they’ll expand to include the feeling of being completely alone.  I do believe kids want and need independence, but abandoning them to their fears will only delay them from reaching that independence in a healthy way.
But what if we really, honestly can’t recognize their fear as real?  What if their fear is over something so impossible as to make us laugh and dismiss it without a second thought?
My youngest daughter was once terrified of elephants.  Not a big deal, really, considering there have never been any elephants in our neighborhood.  We would smile at her serious expressions, laugh at her imagination, and then forget about it entirely.  We never noticed how consuming this fear had become until one night when she couldn’t sleep because she thought an elephant was in her darkened room.  She screamed and shivered while I finally grasped the depth of her worry.  It wouldn’t have helped anything if I’d merely sighed in exasperation and discounted her illogical fear so I could get back to my own bed quickly, so I helped her look all about the room.  We whispered and smiled and hugged.  She became comforted and confident, and the night became peaceful again.  If I’d shrugged off her fear as impossible she would have been awake all night, disturbing the whole house with her anxiety.
With our oldest, her fears are becoming more concrete and realistic.  She’s worried about how houses catch fire.  She’s concerned about exposed electricity.  She starting to understand the fragility of life; all manner of accidents seem suddenly sinister.  I don’t want her to become a chronic worrier, so I don’t plan to tell her every detail of each disaster, but I have to help her work through those fears.  We talk about what we’d do if there was ever a fire, and how firefighters would come to our house.  We talk about the benefits of electricity and the ways to be careful around it.  We talk about the unlikelihood of accidents like these happening, while acknowledging their reality. 
Our children’s fears are honest and real, and they deserve compassionate honesty from us in return.  Whether they’re terrified of a tiger or a tornado roaming in their backyard, parents are the front-line defenders against fear.  Our kids should be able to trust in our confident reassurance. 


  1. I haven't been watching much, but we did talk to my older daughter about the earthquake. We talked about the science involved and while I haven't let her see many images of the destruction, we talk about the help we can give. My proudest mommy moment was when she brought me every coin she had last year to help in Haiti. Without prompting.

    But the other fears... Oh I'm good with the first ten times of reassuring, but once we know the science of thunder. And we count and bake a thunder cake, and we yell back, and we cradle and sooth, I start to lose patience. Which is my failing, not hers. Fears are real. Emotions matter, and should be taken seriously.

  2. Oh, you explained this perfectly. good job and so true!!!


Hmm...And how did that make you FEEL?