Playfully Pushing Through Fears

We were on a field trip, and when it came time to head into the woods, one little five year old balked. The others had gone on ahead, so I stayed back to try to figure this one out. "Why don't you want to go into the woods?" I asked. He responded that once in the woods he'd gotten a pricker in his thumb and it had hurt, though now it was out. What to do? It seemed a pity to let a little pricker from the past keep him from this adventure. Yet I knew that this child was not one who was easily moved once he'd taken a stand.

I've come up against children's fears plenty of times. I'm pretty good with the ones that seem substantial to me--high insecure places, big rooms full of strangers, fire. But it's hard when what they're afraid of seems so silly. They don't want to walk in the grass because they might step on a mole hill. They don't want to go on the sand because there might be a crab. They don't want to get in the water above their ankles for reasons that even they cannot articulate.

I don't feel very helpful at these moments. I want to give up in despair. I want to ridicule them for the idiocy of their fears. I want to overpower and force them into this objectively safe activity. I want to abandon them to stew in their stupid choices while I get on with enjoying my own life. I want to scream, "I can't believe it!"

Unfortunately, nothing that I want to do works. I've never seen a child get over such a fear through ridicule, domination, abandonment, or adult screams of despair. The only thing I've found to be helpful is to offer myself as a safe resource, not avoid the scary thing but encourage them to pay attention and let the fear show itself, with no worry when (if ever) they will get unscared enough to do what they couldn't do before.

I didn't know this child very well, and wasn't sure if I could offer enough safety that he could use me as a resource. But I figured it was worth a try. So I said, "How about if I hold your hand and take responsibility for keeping the prickers away?" He wasn't sure. I persisted, saying how much I wanted to try and how careful I would be. He finally agreed and took my hand to give it a try. (This in itself was a step forward in our relationship. I hadn't expected it of this very self-contained, non-demonstrative child.)

I took the attitude toward the prickers that has worked well with my children. Loud and menacing. "You'd better watch out prickers, because HERE WE COME! If you don't get out of our way, you're gonna be sorry, 'cause we're gonna STOMP on you." With this tone, the situation is turned upside down. Menace and fear--feelings that the child is familiar with from the past--are still present, but the roles have gotten reversed. WE are the all-powerful ones now, and it's the prickers that get to shake in their shoes.

He was clearly interested in this novel approach. But I wasn't able to protect him from one little prick, and he said he wanted to go back. I didn't try to push him, but continued to menace and stomp enthusiastically as we retraced our steps. Just as we were almost out of the woods, he changed his mind again. There was something about this adventure that he wanted more of. So we headed back in. While I threatened and subdued the big prickers, I pointed out little ones that he could stomp, and he got more and more daring as we went along. When we came to an open patch, he let go of my hand and ran on ahead. I maintained the tone, saying, "Phooey, no prickers here! Well, if there are any up ahead, they'd better just watch out!"

He had a good time at our destination and when we were ready to head back he took my hand and announced with pleasure that it was time to stomp more prickers. Another little girl perked up her ears at this tone, and the three of us threatened and stomped all the way back. He was still cautious for sure, but very much engaged in this daring adventure of facing the fear.

When his mother came to pick him up, he couldn't wait to tell the highlight of the field trip: "Mom, Pamela and I did a lot of pricker stomping!" And the next time I saw him, a week later, the first words out of his mouth were, "When are we going to have a chance to stomp some more prickers?" This was a fear that would never be the same again. And I was touched. With just a little initiative and thought on my part, I had reached a boy who seemed unusually reserved and inaccessible--and won his heart.