Teaching Children to Conquer Fear

“You’re my president,” a three-year-old told her mother during all the excited talk about inauguration. What wisdom! She looks to her mom to keep her safe just as we rely on our president to preserve the Constitution and our country. Parents often feel challenged to keep their children secure in this changing world. But people today are also more psychologically astute about reducing anxiety in their children. In the past, parents often threatened children to motivate them to stay safe. Remember the boogey man? Amy Tan describes her mother’s fear-instilling techniques in her bestselling memoir, The Opposite of Fate: “If you don’t look both ways crossing the street, you’ll be smashed flat like a sand dab.”

One popular threat was warning children to keep a distance from people who seem “other.” A young Caucasian girl interviewed outside her recently integrated school in the 1950s spoke fearfully: “If only we could have another group come to our school. Black people are so different than we are.” We live during the birth of an age when we will teach children compassionate identification with humanity, promoting feelings of unity.

Psychiatrist and Harvard professor Robert Coles won a Pulitzer Prize for writing about the courage of six-year-old Ruby Bridges, who marched through a threatening crowd to integrate her all-white New Orleans elementary school in 1960. He discovered that her grandmother (her president) taught Ruby to understand that the people who hissed and threatened her life were simply afraid of change. Ruby’s grandmother taught her to pray for the people while she walked through the crowd.

Helping children to find courage builds their sense of security. Parents can build bravery by noticing situations when children call on their inner strength. “That was hard for you to tell the teacher what happened. Being honest takes a lot of courage.” Parents can also arm children with tools to handle anxiety like breathing deeply or practicing statements to protect themselves, like “I don’t like to be teased.”

Indeed, one of the powerful ways to combat fear is learning to say the right words to ourselves. “I don’t need to be afraid,” we can tell ourselves. “I can handle this.” Recently one of our moms taught her daughter to talk to herself with these words when she was afraid during the night: “My mommy loves me; my mommy takes care of me.” Saying these words helped her go back to sleep and rest peacefully throughout the night.”

Children need that peace of mind and tender images that nourish their beings. Parents provide children with their first windows to the world and protection from negative influences. Hearing about horrifying events on the evening news or watching exciting, scary movies can propel children toward the adrenaline rush of fear. However, learning to talk to themselves and others in clear and confident ways seeds their abilities to feel safe and act wisely in the world.

Susan Isaacs Kohl, is director of the White Pony preschool in Lafayette. She is the author of The Best Things Parents Do (Conari 2004) and four other books and numerous articles for parents.

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