Fear and Our Kids

Welcome back to revive families connecting hearts blog. We’ve been in the midst of a series on patience. Given everything going on with the Coronavirus and the fear I see growing, I thought it might be a great time to stop and take a short break from the patience series and talk a little bit about fear and our kids. 

There are many reasons to be fearful and or worry today as may States like California are ordering shelter in place restrictions and businesses to be shut down. There is fear of the virus but also fears about jobs and the economy.  All of these are legitimate concerns, but questions arise; how do we deal with our fears and how do we handle them with our kids?

Fear is Positive but Can Become Negative

It’s clear from psychological research that fear is not necessarily a negative thing. In fact, it can be a very healthy thing. It’s what causes our species, humans, to survive. Our fear  Instinct protects us in so many ways. However, anything that’s positive, when taken to an extreme, can become a negative very quickly, which is the case with fear.  

Psychology defines a fear that’s gone to a negative place a phobia, which is what we want to avoid creating in our kids. Why do I say this? Because I’ve seen that occur in some of my kids’ friends and in some families that created a strong sense of fear in their kids. Fear tends to hold kids back. I have observed as those kids got older, their parents become more frustrated  because their kids wouldn’t venture out, they wouldn’t try things, they couldn’t make decisions on their own. They relied on their parents well into college and beyond.

Unfortunately I’ve also seen cases where parents are expecting, almost demanding dependence from their kids. They created such fear that their kids rely on them for virtually everything when they’re away at college. In fact, one of my daughter’s friends gets stressed out, worried and concerned every time she needs to pack to go home or pack to go on a retreat. She’s developed such a strong fear through her family culture that I wonder how she will function when she graduates this year. Of course, none of us wants to produce this outcome in our kids. 

Let’s Assess How We Respond

We need to stop and look at how we respond and what we say to our kids when things are going on that are literally world-changing. How do we react to circumstances like the Corona virus that literally impact every area of the world, every area of our culture, and every area of our economy.

There’s plenty of room to be worried, concerned and fearful, but we don’t want to raise kids who live in fear and don’t have the confidence to make their own decisions. We don’t want our kids to be constantly worried and stressed out and unable to trust God to protect them. That’s not a healthy way to live. 

Kids Pick Up Our Fears More Then We Realize

One of the things we need to understand is that research shows that kids at very young ages, perhaps even in the womb, can pick up on a mother’s fear. Fear can be transmitted to our kids without direct communication by our stress levels, our nonverbal communication, and by the way we handle things when things go wrong.  This is why in these times we really need to stop and check ourselves and see how much worry, fear, and stress is evident in our lives.  

Casual concern is great, but when we begin to think about it over and over again, when it keeps us up at night, when we find ourselves talking about it a lot, obsessing over getting the latest news, we may have gone too far with our worry, concern and fear. Does this mean we should take the blind faith approach like the church that was shut down because it did not honor the order against 200 people gathering? They gathered to demonstrate that they lived  in faith and believed God would protect them. I’m not sure that’s what God desires either. There’s a fine balance and this is where our relationship with God needs to guide us. For. many years I struggled with this of justice, in terms of right and wrong.

It really bothered me when I saw injustice occurring in the Christian world. I would often become frustrated, negative and withdraw. God has done a work in my heart in that area. It’s a similar work that He needs to do in our hearts when it comes to events like the Corona virus.  We have a healthy understanding and recognition of the danger, but we have a stronger faith in God that allows us to give our lives and our kids’ lives into his hands. Does this mean we don’t take precautions, we don’t wash our hands and we don’t abide by the social distance rules?  Absolutely not. But it does mean that we live free of anxiety, worry, and the concern that we can transmit to our kids and create a phobia that could become debilitating.  Germs and illness are things we just can’t avoid in life. If kids develop a phobia at this time, it will become debilitating  and interfere with our kids’ ability to get out, experience and enjoy life. 

How Do We Manage Our Fear

So what is fear and what can we do to manage our fears as well as help our kids manage their fear?  That’s what we’re going to be talking about in the rest of the program. And again, it’s important to recognize that fear is a vital response to physical and emotional danger that has been pivotal throughout our development. If people didn’t fear, they would not be able to protect themselves from legitimate threats which often had life or death consequences in historical times. The stakes are lower today. For example, elevator spiders generally don’t present immediate dire consequences, yet some individuals still develop extreme fight, flight or freeze responses to them or other specific objects or scenarios.

Fact, according to an article in the Smithsonian on fear in the brain, one in four people experience some form of anxiety disorder during their life and nearly 8% experience post traumatic stress disorder of some type related to fear. In fact, the fear response in the brain triggers chemicals that are released in our body that literally help our body prepare for a fight or flight response. This response makes adjustments in our body that increase our sense and awareness of everything around us.  Our bodies become more efficient and our brains become hyper alert. Our pupils dilate, our bronchial tubes dilate, our breathing accelerates and our hearts and blood pressure respond all allowing us to have greater capacity for fight or flight. However living in constant fear puts our body under an incredible strain. It’s not healthy long term and right now we’re dealing with one of these longterm threats that can cause us to be up at night, worried, stressed out, and fearful. When we’re fearful, we tend to be more reactive with those around us.

All of these things can help transmit our fear to our kids. In the article, How to help children manage fears, Ray Jacobson says this: fears are an inescapable part of being a kid, hiding behind the couch during a thunderstorm, being sure there’s something in the closet, a monster performing those endless mastics to avoid bedtime. Because fears are a normal part of childhood, it’s really important for us as parents to consider how the Coronavirus is impacting our kids.

Questions to Ask Yourself

Do they have fear? Are they developing a heightened fear or an extreme fear of germs?  This Is something we don’t want to create in our kids and it’s why we need to be really self aware and know how we’re responding and reacting.  If we freak out because our kids don’t wash their hands or they touch their face, if we overreact to things that are going on as a result of the Coronavirus, our kids will pick up on it and it can drive fear deep into their soul to the point where it can become unhealthy. This is why it’s so important for us to take a few moments to stop, to pray, to trust, to release our fear and to believe that great things are possible in spite of all the unprecedented craziness that seems to be going on around us.

I mean, it’s weird when you walk into the grocery store and most of the shelves are bare. That can cause anxiety and fear. How am I going to feed my kids? If we take our kids into the store with us and they observe us reacting strongly or talking about it obsessively, it can create  increased worry and fear in them when they’re probably already fearful. 

How do we help our kids manage their fears? 

When our kids encounter normal fears like at bedtime, lights out, or during thunderstorms, It’s natural for us to try to soothe and comfort them by saying things like ‘there’s nothing under the bed I promise’.  What this article we’ve been looking at states is that we don’t always want to jump in and try to soothe or dismiss our kids’ fears because it’s vital for them to learn at a young age how to manage their fears. Why is this important? Teaching our kids to manage their fears without our intervention or help, will help them build confidence and independence.  It will enable them to feel more in control and less afraid.  It will set them up to succeed in their future. As we go through the steps to help our kids learn to manage their fears, it can also help us learn to manage ours, especially related to this crazy situation going on with the Coronavirus.

Self Regulation

The article discusses an invisible skill called self-regulation. Self-regulation is essentially the ability to process and manage our own emotions and behaviors in a healthy way. It’s what gives us the ability to talk ourselves down, to feel strong emotions without acting on them. A great question parents need to ask themselves is: am I able to manage my emotions and talk myself down? Another is am I able to process my emotions without reacting and acting on them? This ties in to the series on discovering our patience that I’m interrupting to do this one on fear. It’s a four program series that looks at patience from many different angles. If your answer was “no” I’m not really good at processing my emotions without reacting to them, then that series might be a great series to listen to at our site, Revivefamily.com. You will find it in the podcasts. 

Obviously many grownups practice self-regulation without a second thought. Stop with me for a second and think of a moment of fear you experienced and what you did in that moment. Most of us ask ourselves some questions to assess whether the fear is warranted or not. Then we take the necessary precautions or steps to be safer. However, if our fear, thoughts or worries take over, we can overreact, we can panic. If that happens, for example, when our child is hurt, we can actually drive fear deeper into them around whatever went wrong that caused them to be hurt.  We are not self-regulating.

Helping our kids learn to self-regulate is a way to help them start feeling braver. They need practice to build self regulation skills. According to the article, they need space to learn, which means parents have to get comfortable with letting kids be a little uncomfortable as they figure things out. In the case of the Coronavirus, it means we can’t be harping on them all the time about washing their hands.  We can’t be micromanaging them to make sure they don’t get sick. We need to give them the space they need to process and grow. 

Fears are a normal, healthy part of life and especially of growing up. There’s a fine balance between giving space and jumping in when our kids encounter difficulty, stress or fear. Many of the things they fear aren’t that serious.

Step Back

We need to relax, step back and not feel like we must fix everything for our kids because we can’t protect them from all harm. If we could manage to do that while they’re growing up, will they be ready to manage difficult situations on their own when they leave our homes? 

Coronavirus can trigger a bunch of worries and concerns in us: fear of losing a job, fear of the stock market crashing, fear of germs and the virus itself. fear of death and a fear of the economy and the future. There are a lot of things that our kids could be picking up on from us in our current situation.

The goal according to the article is to gently guide kids along until they’re ready to take the reins themselves. We want to provide them with a plan or a scaffolding so that they can stand on their own when it comes to confronting difficult things and fear. So what’s the best way to help? It’s to validate and move on, which is something perhaps we need to do for ourselves as well. Validate the worry and concern. Recognize that it’s real, but then move on by taking it to the Lord in prayer and moving on with our lives. Take hold of the peace and hope that the Holy spirit will provide within us when we stop relying on ourselves, when we stop believing we have to get it all done ourselves. Truly let go and let God. This would be a great time to ask your kids, do you think I’m fearful of the Coronavirus or do you think I’m fearful of losing my job and see what they say?

You can even follow up with questions like, do you think I’m handling it well? Do you think I’m living in faith in this? Ask important questions like, is my fear worrying you? Am I causing you to be fearful.  Also ask them questions like, what are you hearing? What are your concerns or worries? Are you fearful?  When our kids share their fears, we need to validate them as legitimate but then move on. We shouldn’t dwell on them because we’ll be teaching them to stay in that place of fear which can lead to a phobia. We also should not minimize or dismiss their feelings by saying things like, Oh, come on that wasn’t scary.  

Example and Move On

In the case of the Coronavirus. Wow, it’s a bit scary, isn’t it? It seems like everybody in the world is fearful of this bug, but we don’t need to be. Once you’ve offered some reassurance and validated their feelings, it’s really important to move on because we don’t want them to dwell on it. We can say we don’t need to worry because God is here for us. We’re taking the proper precautions which is why it’s important for you to wash your hands. It’s also why we’re not going into town as much. If we handle it casually and reassure them appropriately, it will help them learn to become braver in the face of scary emotional things, which is a great thing because braveness means we don’t feel trapped. We don’t feel hurt. We don’t need to react. We can respond strategically as opposed to react, which often leads to  wrong decisions being made in the times of crisis.

I learned this principle when I was a volunteer firefighter, an EMT and worked on the Sheriff’s search and rescue team.  The reason we did extensive training was so that when we went into a crisis situation, we didn’t overreact. We were well prepared so that fear didn’t enter with us and cause us to make wrong decisions. When firefighters or EMTs pull up to an auto accident or medical scene and there’s all sorts of craziness going on, they’re not running, they’re not panicking, they’re grabbing their equipment deliberately. They’re moving deliberately and swiftly, but they’re not running. They’re not panicking. 

One of the things you can do is make a plan. You can work with your child to set reasonable goals around their fears. If your kid has a fear of the dark and doesn’t want the door shut and doesn’t want the lights off at night, guide them by asking strategic questions like: do you like this fear? Would you like to get rid of this fear? Can we make a plan to start conquering this fear? Would you like to make a plan together to get over this fear? Then assemble a plan with your child working toward getting over that specific fear.

Example Plan to Address Fear

 First night, read two books, turn off the light, turn on the nightlight, and then sit there quietly with them for a period of time until they fall asleep. Next night read one book, turn off the light, turn on the nightlight and leave the door cracked, but not wide open, but be right outside the room in case their fear comes back before they fall asleep. Next, read one book, turn off the light, turn on the nightlight and then close the door.  Finally, read one book, lights out, no nightlight and close the door. Gradually take steps toward conquering that fear. Of course, we need to expect them to have setbacks in the process. Be patient and  comforting and say, okay, let’s take one step back and try that again and then take one step forwards the next night. Your plan does not have to be hard and fast, just one that they understand and know where they’re headed. In that process, they’re building braveness. Each day. They know what’s coming, they’re processing their thinking, they’re learning and they’re growing.

So now it’s time to really talk to your kids, ask them questions mentioned earlier about how they think you’re doing, handling this crazy situation of the Coronavirus. I asked my son the other day, so do you sense that I’m fearful at all about the coronavirus? And my son said, no. Ask them the questions about how they perceive you’re doing handling the fears, worries and concerns. 

Ask them how their sense of you is impacting them and then ask them, do you have fears? Get them talking about it. And then if they’re really beginning to develop a strong fear of germs, the Coronavirus or getting sick, help them begin to conquer that. Build a plan that involves some prayer and includes some faith steps. Of course, I’m not saying have them go out like some of these absurd people who lick things out in public. Help them place their trust in God for their protection in this time. Help them learn to build bravery so that they are not gripped or controlled by fear. These are unprecedented times in which we live. There are many things to be concerned and worry about, but let’s not let our fears get transmitted to our kids in an unhealthy way. 

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