Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Small Childhood Experiences Can Become Fears Later

"Too many folks go through life running from something that isn't after them."
- Anonymous

All phobias, almost all fears (except bullying and abuse) and almost all worrying fit within this statement.

The reality is that most of us have almost nothing worth worrying about or warranting our fear. Worry is, at best, non-productive use of our energy and fears are harmful both emotionally and physically. Why do we do these destructive things to ourselves?

We have a natural instinct for fear, which social scientists call apprehension. Recent research suggests that it may even be associated with part of our genetic code. Going back to the days before homo sapiens emerged and for many years after our species began, we had good reason to be apprehensive of animals and situations that could kill us or cause us severe harm.

While that kind of apprehension is less critical today, it still exists for people in some neighbourhoods where violence and personal assaults are more common than in most places. It's also wise for us to avoid such things as hot stove elements, driving while drunk and teasing free-roaming dogs we meet on the street. We have a need for caution, but usually not fear.

Most children today are inadvertently taught fear by their parents and their schools. In the name of safety, children are made aware of dangers that could befall them when they are not supervised by adults. In order to make their point in a fashion that will be remembered for as long as the children live, parents and teachers may exaggerate the harm that could come to the children. That exaggeration is remembered by some and it becomes fear or phobia.

Some children incorporate frightful experiences they have watching movies into their psyches. A movie where is cobra attacks a movie character might develop years later into a fear of snakes. A movie about escape from a prison through a tunnel might develop into a fear of enclosed spaces (claustrophobia). A movie about a dog that attacks humans might develop into a fear of dogs.

A parent who fears insects or spiders can easily pass that fear along to her children by role modelling.

When people, especially as children, experience frightening events then do not have an adult they depend on to discuss the situation with them to help them to put their experience into perspective (you don't need to fear cats or tall buildings), these events could easily develop into fear later.

Getting rid of a fear or a phobia as an adult is very difficult. Discussing every possible circumstance in which a child has experienced fear that could develop into real fear later is challenging and a burden for parents and teachers, but the long term benefits to the children are immeasurable. It simply needs to be done.

Sometimes parents need to put themselves into the positions of their children and imagine what their recent experiences could mean to them later in order to understand whether some intervention is necessary at the time to prevent an exaggerated form of fear later on.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, striving to prepare parents for the enormous job and responsibilities they have that many know too little about.
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