The Fear Factor

With the Halloween season upon us, many children will be getting involved in the festivities by putting on fancy dress costumes and scary masks, going trick-or-treating with friends and telling stories to frighten and entertain. It’s an apt time to consider where fears come from, why certain things are particularly scary and how to best manage a situation when a child is very frightened.

By Dr Mark Rodgers

Where does fear come from?

Fear is recognised as one of the basic emotions, with others including happiness, sadness, surprise, disgust and anger. No matter where you go in the world, and no matter which culture you visit, studies suggest that everyone recognises the facial expressions that communicate these basic emotions. So an upturned mouth is recognised as the unanimous sign of happiness, for example, and a facial expression with eyes open wide, brows raised and mouth open slightly is a universal sign of fear. This widespread recognition about these basic emotions is important as it indicates that these are instinctive and might even be pre-programmed.

It is suggested that fear responses are learned through a process of classical fear conditioning, with a part of the brain called the amygdala thought to play an important role. Classical fear conditioning usually requires first-hand experience of a fearful event. Fear responses have been studied a lot – perhaps because fear also expresses itself in the physical body with a fast heart rate, changes in breathing rate and release of body stress hormones, for example – all of which can be measured.

Back in the 1920s, an American psychologist sought to apply the above principles in his study of ‘Little Albert’. In brief, like many infants Albert had an instinctive fear of very loud noises but no fear of a pet rat. In the study Albert was presented with a pet rat and every time he went to touch it a loud noise was played. Albert quickly learned to associate the loud and frightening noise with the pet rat so that eventually the mere site of the rat, even without the noise, caused Albert to display a fear response.

This type of conditioned fear is thought to be a key mechanism underpinning panic attacks, phobias, anxiety disorders and so on. However, fear is not always a negative thing; in fact a child’s natural fear conditioning can be of benefit as learning to respond appropriately to environmental triggers that predict potentially dangerous events is important to the survival of any living creature.

Why are some things scarier than others – like spiders?

Spiders are often darkly coloured, have multiple angular legs, and can make fast erratic movements. These characteristics can create negative associations in our minds and therefore it is no surprise that some children, and even adults, might be fearful of spiders. Any fear can be judged as rational or irrational, and an irrational fear is sometimes referred to as a ‘phobia’. The fear of spiders is called arachnophobia. Recently it has been suggested that arachnophobia could be carried in our DNA as a result of human evolution. This might be because many years ago our ancestors had a much higher likelihood of coming in contact with dangerous spiders in their wilderness environment and those who were able to spot the spiders outlived those who were less cautious.

More recently it has been suggested that fear or phobias could develop by a process of social observation rather than a first-hand experience of a fearful event. For example if a child sees his or her parents or siblings reacting to a spider in a fearful way, then that child is potentially more likely to develop arachnophobia.

What is the best way
to cope with a terrified child?

It is worth remembering that it can be difficult to tell the difference between normal and pathological fear in children because fears and anxiety can be a part of normal child development. For instance, separation anxiety normally can occur at 12 to 18 months, fear of darkness at two to four years old, fear of death at four to five years old and so on.

If a child becomes fearful it might be helpful to ask yourself firstly, is it reasonable for a child to feel this way in the situation they are in? And secondly, does this fear disrupt the child’s functioning in the family or in daily life? The answers to these questions may help you decide if your child’s situation is on the spectrum of typical experience or if their situation is more severe wherein you may wish to speak to your GP or health professional.

To help children with fears or phobias simple relaxation exercises can be helpful. Other general measures include talking openly about the issue. Aim to respond honestly and gauge what is an appropriate amount of detail when answering their questions about illness, hospitals, death and so on. Try to validate their fearful emotions by comforting them, providing reassurance that they are safe, and staying calm and collected yourself. It is important that as a parent you stay calm in the situation that your child finds frightening as children learn from a parent’s behaviour through a process of social conditioning, therefore model good reactions for them.

Provide opportunities for your child to take some control of the situation – for example, asking them what would be helpful. Many children’s stories deal with overcoming fears and these can be valuable in letting your child know that others experience these difficulties and they can be worked through. Encourage your child to take steps to manage their fears, but don’t force them to confront the issues fully and all at once. Finally, have routines at home that afford predictability and foster your child’s sense of security and well-being. Generally speaking, adequate physical activity and good sleep hygiene are also important. The good news is that whilst most children go through periods where they feel frightened, these fears can dissipate as the child grows up and in the majority of cases normal functioning and development ensue.

Dr Mark Rodgers is an award-winning child psychiatrist and former recipient of the Dr. Thomas Freeman Psychotherapy Award. 

The content of Dr Rodgers’ article is for general information only. The information is not for diagnostic purposes and should not be treated as such. You must not rely on the information in this column as an alternative to medical advice from your GP
or other professional healthcare provider. You must never disregard medical advice given to you personally or your child, or discontinue medical treatment because of information provided in this column.

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