My training is primarily as a child psychologist and I've helped a lot of kids overcome fear. I'm going to bounce back and forth just a little bit today between talking to you as a parent and showing you how I might talk to a child about fear and how to overcome it.
I think the first important thing we need to do is teach our children about fear, what it is. And this is based on your brain’s fight-or-flight response. This is a natural mechanism that's built in. So, if I'm talking to a child, I might say, “You know what? Your brain is amazing and it's in charge of everything. It's in charge of what you think. It's in charge of what you feel. It's in charge of what you do. It's like your brain is in charge of everything that's going on. And one of its jobs is to keep you safe. Now, this is good. Your brain loves you. It doesn't want you to be in danger. So, if it thinks you're in danger, it's going to jump in and try to take care of you. How does it do that?” We tell them that their brain has some special things built in that makes it possible for them to stay safe.
You can use this example with your kids or come up with one that's similar to it that they might be more familiar with. “What if we were out just taking a walk through the woods and we were just enjoying the weather and were having a great time and then suddenly, a big ole bear comes out from behind a tree? It wants to rip your face off or eat you for lunch. I'm sorry. Did I scare you? Well, just imagine it. Well, what happened to your heart? Oh, wow. It would start beating and pounding. And usually you can't even feel your heart. But when you're really scared, you can. And your breathing becomes rapid, shallow, like this. Well, that's because your brain doesn't want you to be somebody's lunch. So, it kicks in and it sends a little signal to glands in your body. Glands are just little parts of your body that make and store chemicals for you. It's like it's just holding it and saying, ‘I made this for you. In case you need it, let me know.” Those chemicals are just sitting there waiting. Well when you're in danger, the brain says, “Hey, we need those chemicals.” And that gland says, “Oh, great. Got some for you right here.” Squirt. And it squirts it right into your bloodstream. That chemical goes to every part of your body. When it hits your heart, your heart starts beating hard and fast. These are chemicals that prepare your body to get you out of danger. It's kind of like the powerup that you get on a little video game. Oh! Now I'm powered up. And that gives me the ability to either run away or put up my dukes and fight because you want to be safe and your brain loves you. It doesn't want you to be eaten for lunch. When talking to children, I want to join them on their level and so you want to be a little animated about it. Have some fun, be playful with it. This helps them to feel secure, also.
This fight-or-flight response that I'm referring to is not just something that's built into kids. You've got one too. And your fight-or-flight response gets triggered all the time as well. Chemicals come into your body. Now, just as an acknowledgement: I don't necessarily have to tell the kids this. Okay? But as a parent, I want you to understand that these chemicals have a half-life. Half-life is just a chemical term for how long it take for roughly half of the potency to be diffused or absorbed into the body or metabolized. When these chemicals hit the system, it can take a little while for them to dissipate. Not a long time, because the chemicals involved with the fight-or-flight response are fairly short acting and have a short half-life. But it's going to take a little time. So, it's not helpful to just tell our kids, “Hey, don't be afraid,” because they've already been triggered. The heart is beating hard already. They're breathing fast and shallow. They've got a physiological response to a chemical. So, give them a moment, okay? And sometimes it's going take a minute or two for them to calm down a little bit.
The next thing we want to teach the kids is the difference between a real threat and a perceived threat. Because the limbic system, the fight-or-flight response that's being driven in your body can't tell the difference. It cannot tell the difference between a threat that is real and a threat that is perceived. Good example, you go to the movies. It starts to get a little intense up on the screen, what do you notice? Your heart starts beating a little faster. Maybe you're gripping those arm rests a little more tightly, right? Is it a real threat are you in danger? No. Does your limbic system know that in your brain? No. It can't tell the difference and so it kicks you into fight-or-flight either way. So, the next thing we want to do with our kids is practice discerning between a real threat like a bear attacking me and a perceived threat like I'm going to school. Some kids have a fear of going to school, are they're really in danger? No. Not particularly. Are there risks? Yes. We will take that on another time.
What's a real threat? What's a perceived threat? So, you could just simply have some conversations with your child about… Okay, how about answering the door. Real threat? Perceived threat? How about getting up on time for school? And some of these they'll be like, “What? That's not a threat. You're right.” Now, your limbic system might not know that, okay? How about getting on the ride at the amusement park? Now, this one's interesting because the rides trigger our fight-or-flight response. It doesn't mean that you are in danger. So, you can have a little chat with your child if you visited an amusement park and went on the roller coaster, for example. Are you really in danger getting on the roller coaster? Not really. They have very stringent safety guidelines. It's more dangerous to drive to the amusement park than it is to get on the roller coaster.
We want to have conversations with our kids about discerning between a real threat and a perceived threat. Remind your child that their brain is sometimes going to play tricks on them. And the best way to understand this is through media. When you are watching a movie, are you in danger? No. Do you feel scared? Sometimes. Why? Because your brain is playing tricks on you. You are safe, but your brain doesn't know that. Now, when we get triggered, remember the chemicals have a half-life. They have a very physiological effect. So, we want to next teach self-soothing, we want to calm down that chemical response? The quickest way I know is breathing.
Don’t try to do this with your child when they are feeling flooded, when they are all worked up or upset. Practice this breathing technique before your talk. Breathe in through the nose and fill up the lungs nice and full. You need to do this with them. Just hold for a few seconds and hold with them. Then exhale through your mouth nice and slow like you're blowing out candles. And you want to make that exhale about twice as long as the inhale. That's a really good exercise. You do 2 or 3 of those together with your child. You might practice it after they get up in the morning. You might practice it around lunchtime. You might practice it again when they go to bed. And this can help them sleep better. What we are doing is conditioning the brain to start calming itself. After it's been practiced a few times, you can actually use this as an intervention when their feeling is triggered. When they're feeling upset, just pause, “Okay, let's take a breath together.” It could be even just one brief repetition to help calm and get that chemistry reversed in their brain.
The next strategy might take a little coaching. So, if you need some coaching, reach out to us. Answer the what-if questions. Part of what causes that sense of fear is that our subconscious mind, (this is the part we are not aware of) is asking, “Well, what if this happens? Or what if that happens?” And your kid’s have a really great imagination. When these what-if questions come up, the problem isn't so much the question. The problem is the answer. And the answer is “I can't handle that!” That's why we have to answer the what if. This is a perceived threat, not a real threat because the truth is you can handle it. Think about it. You've handled absolutely everything so far, haven't you? Your entire life. Why would that be different for your kids? And mom, dad, we got to check our own beliefs about this. Because if you believe that your child can't handle something, then you will reinforce the fear. You have to really take a look at that. Can my child handle it if this feared thing happens? And the answer I think is –of course they can. They'd have to if it happened. So, there's your answer. All we want to do is get to this answer: “I could handle that.”
Now, your child might throw it right up back in your face. “Mom, what if I get lost in the store?” “Oh, well, you can handle that.” Okay, now mom, you're probably thinking, “Oh, I don't know if I could handle that.” Well, just check in with that. Could you handle it? Yes, you could. What would you do? And then you get to have a conversation with your child. What if you did get lost in the store? Your child might say, “I don't know what I would do.” Okay, let's get past I don't know and see what you could do. “Oh, I guess I could… I could go talk to a store person.” Okay, the store person is one that's in the uniform that works there at the store. Typically, that's a good choice. There is also some other fairly safe bets. Like another mother with children. Now, that's not a guarantee, okay? That's statistically speaking, a mother with children is a very low risk person to approach. So, we have this conversation with the child. We have to answer the what if.
You also want to reassure your child. Let me clarify what I mean by that. You are not to reassure them that the feared thing won't happen, because you don't know. And even if you say, “Oh, sweetie. That's not going to happen.” Their little mind is cranking it around and saying, “But it could.” And they're right. So, don't lie to your child and say, “Oh, the feared thing will never happen.” You don't know that. What we want to reassure them of is their ability to handle it no matter what. And like I said, this might take a little bit of coaching. So, if you need to reach out to us for that, that's what we're here for. If you haven't yet connected to the Parenting Power-Up, go to www.drpauljenkins.com and join our team. We can actually have one of our certified coaches set up a free break through call with you. Go to www.drpauljenkins.com/breakthroughcall. We are honored and excited to be on the inside of your parenting team.