I am in Costa Rica, getting ready to zip line over the canopy of trees and I am NERVOUS. I’ve got my harness and helmet on, feeling the natural fear of being VERY high up and doing something very unnatural to humans. I tell myself, “freaking out is a choice”. I access my logic with the question, “What’s the mathematical probability of something bad happening?” I remind myself, “I get to choose how I want to think and feel right now”. I decide to focus on this really cool opportunity to see what it feels like to be a bird.
Once I take off and am flying through the trees like a bird, the thought comes to me, “I have always wanted to do this. This is my dream coming true.”
But while I am using all my tools to deal with fear, I’m watching others, drop like flies.
Not out of the sky, thankfully, but off the platform, out of line, and back onto solid ground. Teens and tweens, crying unconsolably or standing frozen with fear. Moms and Dads doing their best to reassure, convince, console and talk their kids out of their freak out. None of these parents had the capacity to override the reptilian part of their kid’s brain. The reptilian brain is the part that hyjacks the more intellectual parts of our brain and can only focus on fight, flight or freeze.
Have you ever been in this situation? Your kid is too scared to ride a roller coaster, or be left alone in the house, or talk to someone they don’t know, or eat a vegetable, or other scary, yet typical hallmarks of childhood?
When the reptilian brain kicks in, it’s pretty hard for a parent to override it with logic. In fact, none of these parents I’m watching on the zip, line were successful. All these kids ended up walking back down, or refusing to step up to the platform, surrendering to their fear.
So what is a parent to do when their kid is scared? How can we encourage them to be brave, in a way that actually works?
The important thing to remember is to be respectful of their fears. Life is full of scary, vulnerable things and we want our kids to learn how to overcome their fears. This is a VERY important life skill and one worthy of respect.
The trick is to help kids shift out of fight/flight/freeze response so they can make a decision from their higher brain. Helping kids calm down is first priority. Bring them away from the immediate threat and speak to your scared kiddos with a calm, confident voice. Don’t try to talk your child out of his fears, instead listen with respect, almost reverence. Then repeat what you hear them saying, adding in these key words: YOUR BRAIN. As in, “Your brain is telling you that you could die.” or “It sounds like your brain is thinking this spider can harm you.”
When children avoid their fears, it can encourage anxiety, so we don’t want to let them off the hook entirely. Once you’ve calmed them down, try asking your child, “What would make you feel more comfortable?” or “What’s one small step you can take towards overcoming your fear, that would make you feel proud of yourself tomorrow?”
Fears are a natural and beneficial part of being human. When kids get to work through them one at a time, at their own pace, they will slowly learn to manage their reptilian brain, take risks that align with their values, and learn how much fun there is to be had on the other side of their fears 🙂