Helping Children Deal With Fear

Every child feels fear from time to time. Whether it’s about the monster under the bed or thinking about a scary story a friend told them, it can be tricky as a parent to know how to help our children through those moments.

This week we share our thoughts on fear and what we can do for our kids.

The science behind fear

Fear is one of the most primitive emotions we experience. Historically it served (and continues to serve) a vital function for survival. Fear is essentially what we feel when our brain perceives stimuli as dangerous.

A small part of our brain called the amygdala is where fear originates. Sensory information is sent here to process first; for example, if you were to smell smoke in a building or hear a growl behind you in the woods, your amygdala would be the first to know. Your focus would become heightened, you might feel a rush of adrenaline, and your heart begins to beat faster as you decide what to do. This reaction is especially helpful in wild animals who are constantly faced with decisions that will affect their survival. It’s not always so helpful in humans who don’t have as many dangerous scenarios to contend with on a daily basis.

Luckily, humans are equipped with some highly-developed portions of the brain: the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. These are the areas that allow us to think critically and analyze information in ways that most organisms cannot. This is why some people enjoy scary movies, haunted houses, or other similar forms of entertainment. We are able to separate the physical response our amygdala sends with the reality we see before us. Unfortunately, there are times when our critical thinking doesn’t quite stand up to the job. Times of high stress are certainly one of these scenarios, as are certain chemical imbalances in the body. Children, and especially young children, haven’t yet formed a solid basis of reality and fantasy, so it can be very challenging for them to sort out what dangers are real and which ones are not.

Interestingly, our body’s physical reactions to fear are very similar to our physical reactions to excitement in positive situations. For example, in many ways you experience the thrill of riding a roller coaster in the same way you experience skidding in your car on an icy road. While on the roller coaster you might find yourself laughing, in your car, you'll likely feel yourself gripping the steering wheel and gritting your teeth. In both situations, your heart is pounding, your breathing quickens, and you’re not able to focus on anything else. Understanding this phenomenon can be helpful when we find ourse