Nudging Fears

We can help children try to avoid contact with things they fear, or require them to not let fear stand in the way. A third way is to stay close and respectful and nudge them in the direction of their fears.

I'll never forget the time a child literally climbed my body to get away from a dog. One moment we were walking together in the part and the next moment I had been shinnied and her arms were around my neck--and a pleasant-looking dog passed harmlessly by. I've never understood these intense fears--and it seems so sad that a child's great natural range of motion should be limited and closed in by fears that seem to have no basis in the present.

It was years later when an uncannily similar situation occurred. It was a different child, a different park, and his mother was there too, but the issue was DOGS. He just couldn't relax and be part of the game everybody else was playing, because there was a dog nearby. It seemed such a pity to accept this limitation. His mom clearly agreed, reminding him that there was one dog at least that he wasn't scared of.

We decided to push a little bit, suggesting that, even though he felt scared, we could get closer to the dog--and we'd promise to keep him safe. He resisted and held back and repeated how scared he was. We said we'd just give it a try--it was a pity to be so scared of such a friendly dog, and we'd make sure nothing bad happened to him. We gently nudged him closer as he continued to resist, hold back, cry about how scared he felt. His mom kept reminding him that he'd been able to make friends with one dog before, and I kept urging him to just give it a try (this was a manifestly friendly dog), and he kept being scared and holding back and crying.

Gradually, gradually in this process we got closer to the dog, till we were close enough to touch. I rubbed the dog's head and scratched under its chin, talking about how soft its fur was, and how friendly it looked, and how it wagged its tail. His mother talked about the dog he knew. He continued to cry and hold back, though by now you could see a gleam of interest in his eyes. I encouraged him to touch too. He said he was too scared. I held his hand and reached it out for him. Trembling, he touched the dog, pulled quickly back, then reached and touched again. At this point our group had finished their game and it was time to go. In the bustle of departure I heard him say to his mother, his voice full of pleasure, "Now I have two dog friends!"

Our children's irrational fears are such a puzzle. How could a person be so frightened of such an un-scary thing? And how should we respond? It seems that there are two general camps. There are those who go for respect, accepting the child's fears and trying to help him or her negotiate life around them. There are those who go for rationality, expecting that a child face or do the scary thing regardless. But it seems, then, that we end up choosing between giving up on a full life for our children or focusing on performance with no attention to how they feel.

I was pleased that we had found a third way--staying close, promising to keep him safe, not blaming or ridiculing him for how he felt, not rushing, and nudging him toward his fear.