Dr Justin Coulson is the co-host of Channel 9’s Parental Guidance, a three-time bestselling author, a TEDx speaker, and one of Australia's most popular parenting experts. In this article he looks at ways to reduce pressure and help children handle fear with confidence.
Most adults would probably agree that life usually makes sense. Sure, from time-to-time things can be a little topsy-turvy and confusing. We don’t always get what we want. But generally, we accurately perceive what’s going on and we are comfortable with navigating whatever life throws at us.
For our children, however, most of life is a blur of unexpected randomness and unpredictable volatility. Life, for a toddler or preschooler, doesn’t make much sense.
Wearing psychological “L” plates
Have you ever noticed that you can cover your face with your hands, then open your hands and say “peek-a-boo” no less than 200 times in a morning and your little one still laughs in surprise?
Have you discovered that your child has to put everything into their mouth, regardless of whether it is food or stuff that is definitely not food?
Have you identified that your child doesn’t respond well to “no”, regardless of how carefully you try to prepare them for it, or how often you’ve said it before about the exact same thing?
Our children’s brains develop based on experience. And since they have so little experience, their brains need repetition before they understand what’s going on. Otherwise, everything is gobbledy-gook.
Because nothing really makes sense, our children are biologically built to require security and predictability. When things are predictable and secure, our children feel as though life is safe for exploration. They want to branch out, spread their wings, experience new adventures.
When life is random, volatile, and unpredictable, the disorder they experience undermines their feelings of safety. As soon as this happens, most children look - immediately - for a secure base to which they can return. Usually their parent acts as that safe haven. We hold them, help them regulate their heart and blood pressure, soothe their amygdala override (fear response), and then gently encourage them to stretch their horizons once more.
Why our children don’t want to face their fears
There are a number of reasons that your child will be highly reactive. Whether it’s day one at preschool/daycare, they’re afraid to climb the slippery dip at the park, or they don’t want to let go of your leg and play with their playmate, you’ll find the following reasons account for much (though not all) of their reluctance and fear:
Nothing makes sense
Early learning and care can feel unsafe and unpredictable. Kids are wired to be close to us and we’re leaving them behind. The park can be intimidating. The ladder is so high and scary. The “friend” isn’t smiling at me. What if they don’t like me?
A lack of experience in novel situations means that our children have no idea what to expect. This makes things volatile and random. This is scary for children. They don’t want to face their fears alone.
Facing fears flies in the face of biology and evolution
Children have been designed to stay close - very close - to their primary caregiver as much as possible during the early years. They need proximity to a familiar, secure, predictable loved one. Shifting them from this, regardless of how necessary it might be, ignores thousands of years of genetic programming.
Separation Anxiety and Attachment Hierarchy
Separation anxiety typically peaks between 10-18 months. But it can last until around the age of three for many children and in some cases, longer. During this time, our children want the person they’re most consistently and securely attached to: usually mum. Those further down the “attachment hierarchy” struggle to make the same connection, which means that big tantrums happen. The child feels vulnerable and unsafe.
Children are usually classified as being either easy, slow-to-warm-up, or difficult. The definitions are as self-explanatory as you might imagine. Easy children respond to new environments easily. Difficult children hate anything that pulls them from mum’s loving arms. Slow-to-warm-up children start off clingy but generally become more comfortable with time.
Sometimes our children don’t want to face their fears because they feed off our energy. If we are anxious, they’ll catch it. If we are cranky, or chaotic, or even a little bit crazy, they’ll catch that! Our overprotective and controlling behaviours will increase anxiety - for them and for us.
Some predictable triggers for challenging behaviour, and particularly for resistance to our efforts to help our children grow, are feeling Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, and Stressed. If our child is feeling any (or all) of these, they’re not going to respond well to early learning and care drop off, a big adventure in the park, a playdate, or anything else new or unexpected. It’s all too scary when their system is already on overload.
Sometimes our children won’t face their fear because of one or all of the above. Sometimes it is something else entirely. The real question to answer is how do we help them navigate their way through novel or unexpected situations?