Fear vs. caution for kids & Parents
Only very recently, while I was once again flipping through Children: The Challenge for support and inspiration, did I come across a small but powerful section on caution vs. fear. How had I missed this before? Perhaps I had been focused on more practical things at the time - like how to maintain my sanity with three energetic children.
As an adult, I’ve come to understand how many bits of my childhood came to loom large in my adulthood. I see with compassion how my (incredible) parents’ well-meaning worries became translated into big scary fears for me. Sometimes these fears that are born in our younger years are the most potent, precisely because they have hazy origins or are remembered more in emotion than in easily articulated words.
Children often don’t want to tell us what has become a fear for them - I sure didn’t. Whether it’s from embarrassment, habit, or even the fear of the fear itself, children often shy away from discussing what’s bothering them. It’s very likely that our children are quietly crawling with large and small fears that play themselves out in large and small ways.
Years ago, I was waiting to take an elevator with one of my nieces and I noticed that she was rather tense. I asked if she was concerned about the elevator and she said she’s always been afraid of them. A common response might have been, “Oh, there’s nothing to worry about! They’re totally safe,” but I know that doesn’t get at the fear itself. Remembering the origins of some of my own childhood fears, I asked her if she had ever seen a movie where people got stuck in an elevator. She nodded. A lucky (or predictable) guess. At that point, we could talk about it - how it was probably really scary to watch that and that she’s probably worried that the same thing will happen to her. I asked if I could show her some things in the elevator she might not have noticed (thankfully it was just us waiting to use it). I showed her the inspection paper, the emergency phone, and the call for help button. In her all-consuming fear, she hadn’t actually noticed any of those features of an elevator before. I watched her physically relax and my smiley niece return and ascend a few floors up with me.
It’s not always that easy to uncover and address our fears. I’m a huge advocate for good psychotherapy - for someone who can accompany us through our dark thoughts and help us get to the other side of many of them. What I think is salient about that example, though, is how much fear clouds our vision. She didn’t see the emergency phone, or if she did, didn’t recognize its value in addressing her worry. Dreikurs writes about exactly that: Fear is actually quite dangerous for us and our children. Fear clouds our judgement and can paralyze the very responsiveness we would need in a real emergency. None of us can really do much with fear - it’s there and feels stuck there. Sometimes it feels like something actually stuck in our throats or stomachs. We go around and around in this enclosed track of fear. There’s no forward movement or further understanding. It becomes insular and even suffocating. Do you know this feeling yourself?
Fear is actually quite dangerous for us and our children.
Caution, on the other hand, can be very helpful. Our children should know, in age-appropriate language and detail, what they should be cautious of and how to deal with a problem should it arise. If your hand gets burned, run it under cool water for a while. If ___ happens, let a responsible person know right away so you can get help or medical attention. We could make our children terrified of fire, snakes, spiders, strangers, germs, cars, vacuum cleaners, storms, terrorists, their own bodies… and the list goes on. Well-meaning adults often try to scare children into safety, but that does not empower them to know the appropriate action to take. They may live in a limbo of terror we inadvertently created when really we were just trying to keep them from getting hurt!
Being a kid is already a pretty scary and vulnerable position (see “What to do when it feels like the end of the world to your child”). They are primed to pick up on and absorb fears of all kinds, from the darkness under the bed to frightening imaginings of burglars in the night. We get the privilege of being their guides through these dark places, neither laughing at their anxieties nor fanning the flames of fear. We may underestimate the darkness inside our child’s mind that is yearning for a little light - best a light of insight for them to shine themselves.
We see this vulnerability to fear here in Miami quite clearly during hurricane season. As a storm approaches, the fear starts to become palpable in the city. Children see adults starting to panic, or at least to talk a whole lot about something “that’s coming.” How much should they worry? Is there anything they can do? Should they hide under their bed? It can bring many of them to tears. So many of us parents are so busy gathering supplies and making plans, though, that we can forget to attend to the emotional preparation and planning our children also need.
Today it’s COVID-19. I hear “coronavirus” peppered into conversation and games at my school. Some students are annoyed when others joke about it, but I suspect they are joking to try to make it a bit more manageable and familiar instead of the looming uncertainty it feels like. Panic won’t help anyone - this we know - but we adults often feel a sense of panic ourselves. Perhaps today we can model managing our own concerns and talking aloud about how we want to be cautious but not fearful. We can share how we want to focus on being smart about prevention and attentive to treatment if needed.
One of the best questions someone has asked when I’ve shared one of my long held childhood fears has been, “What would you do if that happened?” I consider myself a fairly capable person - cool under pressure, creative under limitation, and a lifetime girl scout who idealizes MacGyver style improvisation. But when it comes to the long-held anxieties, I feel a blindspot or a blackhole. I lose my vision. I feel vulnerable. I’m working on slowly looking at all my childhood fears with as much novelty as possible to try to see where I can start to teach myself caution instead of jumping right to calamity. What would I do? What would be a more practical approach to things that have been practically paralyzing?
As a parent, it’s all too easy to pass on our fears like a legacy. I have to catch myself all the time and ask myself what would actually be helpful for my child to know (again depending on age/development) and to give them productive information instead of easy scare tactics. They don’t need to know all the gory details of what could happen if they don’t wear a seatbelt to understand the importance of that simple precaution.
We likely have work to do looking at and reassessing some of our own fears. Luckily, we can use the experience of our fears to help us relate to our children's fears. I used to get scared by movies and not tell anyone. It helped me to guess that the same might be happening for my niece. I know myself what it feels like to be vaguely anxious about getting somewhere on time, and so could recently relate to a student experiencing a similar anxiety. I could share empathy and a gentle inquiry about what might happen if we were late. We can journey together out of the frightful world of fear and into the empowering world of caution. What an incredible life-long gift for our children - releasing them from the unhelpful grip of fear and empowering them to, in fact, be better agents of their own emotional and physical safety.
UPDATE: If you're in Miami, we will be postponing our Miami Sudbury Meet & Greet this Saturday, March 14th. Even though it would be small outdoor event, there was a unanimous vote to postpone the event - both to prevent the potential spread and to continue the example of voluntary rescheduling of social events that many around the city and country are doing. ❤ Let’s flatten the curve!
Please share you comments and suggestions. Thank you!
MAIN Author: CHRISTEN PARKER-YARNAL