We didn’t have cable TV when I was growing up, but my grandmother did. One of my favorite memories of being at my grandmother’s house was watching “Child’s Play” — you know, the movie that kicked off the American horror film series featuring that scary Chucky doll.
I was probably about 10 when I saw that movie for the first time. I remember my grandmother sitting in her living room with me and reassuring me that Chucky wasn’t real. She said if I wanted to watch the movie, I had the ability to make it feel exciting and suspenseful instead of scary.
That is the power a trusted adult has to help a child manage fear. Kids today have lots of other things to be scared of, but the advice my grandmother gave me still holds true.
Biologically, fear begins in the amygdala — the part of the brain that manages the experience of emotions. Neurobiology tells us that fear can vary from fun and thrilling to terrifying and stressful. The difference in experience comes from the context surrounding that fear.
As an adult, I know that if I watch a scary movie or go to a haunted house, I will be scared, and I will love it. I also understand why I am scared of the pandemic, racial violence and the current political unrest. I have the context to understand where my fear comes from, but children don’t have that context. It’s our job, as trusted adults, to help them understand.
Today’s young children are facing fearful situations that no other generation has experienced. They are fearful during virtual learning, and they are fearful about returning to school and seeing children and adults wearing masks and face shields. They are fearful of what they are seeing on the news and fearful of Halloween decorations.
Children’s fear responses can’t distinguish between violent imagery on TV and violence on their street. They can’t help but feel fearful. With the right support, that fear can become a great learning opportunity.
As a response to 9/11, renowned early childhood educator Jim Greenman wrote the book “What Happened to MY World? Helping Children Cope with Turbulent Times” to help support adults with the challenge of talking to children about disaster, fear and coping with the strong emotions that go along with those stressful events.
In his book, Greenman talks about children needing Four Pillars of Security. These pillars are the context to fear for young children:
Children look to the trusted, caring adults in their lives to help them cope with fear and anxiety. If caring adults are missing or acting erratically out of fear, children aren’t able to manage their emotions.
Think of the old saying that dogs can smell fear and are more likely to attack if someone is fearful of them. When the adults are acting fearful, kids pick up on that and respond accordingly.
You may be saying to yourself, “Now, Mona, what if I am scared? How do I pretend to be calm for my child during an emergency?”
The answer is that you probably won’t be able to. What is most important is ensuring that you and your child are safe and then debriefing with your child when the emergency has passed. Talk about what happened, talk about the fact that you were scared, and talk about the fact that the scary moment has passed. Children will learn lessons about coping with fear by seeing you effectively manage your own fear.
Think of the place that you are most comfortable. Are you imagining your home? Most of us will, and kids are no different. During fearful situations, giving children a chance to be in a comfortable place helps them be in an emotional state where they can manage more effectively.
What happens if kids can’t be in their comfortable place? What happens when they have to go to school, and all their friends are talking about the virus, and the principal wears a full face shield in the drop-off line?
Let children take a piece of their comfortable place with them. Let them choose something from their home that becomes an updated safety blanket. I made my 5-year-old nephew, Carter, a face mask. He chose the fabric (the ice cream-loving little guy picked fabric with an ice cream cone motif). It’s also his favorite color, blue, and he picked out a PJ Masks lanyard to clip onto the mask so he doesn’t lose it. He can’t take his home with him to school, but he can take his favorite food, his favorite color, and his favorite TV show with him.
Routines and rituals
The last two pillars are routines and rituals. I’ve combined them here because they really go hand-in-hand. Children (and adults!) thrive off routine. When they know what to expect and the sequence of events that will take place, they can anticipate what will happen next.
The reality of living in a racially charged, politically volatile pandemic is that routine often will be next to impossible to maintain. Giving your child a heads-up that things will be different will help them weather the storm.
My niece and nephew did virtual school at my house for several weeks before going back to in-person classes. When the school district set a return-to-campus date, we talked a lot about what that would mean and the changes to their routine and rituals. For example, my niece wouldn’t be able to make herself a cup of hot cocoa every morning when she arrived at my house, but she would be able to eat lunch in the cafeteria with her friends. Giving kids a heads up for transitions and changes to their routines prepares them for a situation that might otherwise be scary.
You have the power to help kids manage their fear. If you make a mistake — which you will, because we’re all human — remember to talk about the scary moment with your child after it has passed. And for goodness sake, don’t buy the red-haired Chucky doll. We all know how that ends.