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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Children's rational fears

Last time I dealt with children's irrational fears, the ones that are not based on logic or reality.  But what do we do when a child has absolutely rational fears, due to some sort of trauma?

It's time to introduce the delightful 'Jack' and 'Jade', fraternal twins who were 23 months old when a tornado struck their tiny town in Northern NSW.  Their mum has agreed that I can tell you their story.

Up until the tornado struck, Jack and Jade were a well-adjusted, chirpy pair; Jack had unstoppable physical energy and Jade, while still suffering a little from separation anxiety when left at care, was a very cluey quiet achiever.

Then came a completely extraordinary, sudden and unexpected disaster.

The tornado of October 2007 struck pretty much out of the blue while Jack and Jade were sitting in their lounge room one hot, muggy afternoon. There was one huge gust of wind, an eerie stillness and then an unbelievably powerful surge which ripped the roof off the back of the house and came close to blowing in the doors and windows.  The twins' mother grabbed them and her older son, sheltering them behind the lounge room wall, where they huddled together and looked on in terror as the tornado picked up the children's toys from the backyard, including a swing set and trampoline, whirled them high in the air and dumped them throughout the neighbourhood. The trampoline ended up impaled on a tree ten metres above the ground as the family watched.  Soon the area was plunged into darkness, as the power lines had come down and were not restored for two days.

It was a freak event, unprecedented in the area.

Fast forward to some months later. The twins seemed to have bounced back very well, and at their care centre we commented on how resilient small children are.  Mind you, they did seem to have a habit of clutching a toy from home in their hand when they arrived- especially Jack, who would protest tearfully if we tried to send the toy home with mum. Given what had happened to their toys at home, this was probably understandable and I tried not to fuss over it too much.

Then came a very cloudy day, and when it was time to go outside to play Jade became completely hysterical.

Chatting about what had happened to Jade and Jack the previous October with another staff member, I made the connection between the grey clouds in the sky outside and the tornado and figured out why she was upset.  I started to talk quietly to Jade.

'Are you scared about a big storm?'

(sobbing) 'Yes! I don't want to go outside!'

'Is it the clouds that are scary?'


Rule one is the same as for irrational fears.  Take the fear seriously. It is very, very real to the child. And if it's a fear grounded in reality, acknowledge what has happened to the child if you can.  She needs to know you're on her side!

'Well let's stay here and talk for a while then. I don't think those clouds will make a storm today, but I know that big storm at your house was very scary. Would you like a cuddle?'

 (a nod)

When the sobbing had subsided to the point where Jade could actually listen to me, I continued.

'No, I don't think there will be a big storm today. The clouds are the wrong colour.'

Know your child! Fortunately I knew that Jade had an excellent grasp of colours already and was very interested in them.  I was able to persuade her to be lifted up in my arms to look out the window at the clouds. She began to whimper and cower again, but I persisted, reminding her that she was safe inside and we were just talking.

'See, those clouds are white and grey. They're pale clouds. Pale clouds don't have big storms inside. It's the big black clouds you have to watch out for.  Let's find something black and I'll show you what I mean.' 

We walked around the room looking at shades of white, grey and black in the furnishings and toys. I also showed Jade some pictures of clouds in books, and we talked about which ones looked like storm clouds and which ones were safe. Then we went back to the window and talked about what colour the clouds were out there; she was much calmer now, and listened intently.

Note that I didn't try to make her confront her fear by forcing her outside! Information and reassurance is what a genuinely scared child needs, not pushing.

It probably took half an hour of looking at the clouds, reassuring Jade that we would come inside if the clouds got too dark and scary and giving her more information about storms until I was finally able to persuade her to leave the building.  Delightfully, she was rewarded with the sight of a rainbow in the sky!

Jade's fear of cloudy skies wasn't immediately solved by the 'gentle understanding and information' approach- of course not. She continued to find cloudy days terribly challenging and needed constant reassurance. I started taking the initiative and pointing out different types of clouds to her when we were outside, asking her if she thought they had storms in them. In the end she got quite good at identifying clouds that meant it would rain soon and we should go indoors; the feeling of being a bit of an 'expert' on the subject helped her to take control of her fear.

But what about Jack?

Jack's fears took longer to surface; while Jade was experiencing the worst of her anxiety, it seemed as though Jack was letting her do his 'fearing' for him.  (They were, after all, twins and very close.)

Once Jade became more confident, it became evident that Jack had focused on a different aspect of the storm. It wasn't the clouds that worried him- it was the wind. If the gentlest breeze started to rustle the leaves of the trees in our yard while we played outside, Jack would rush to the door and beg to be taken inside. If refused, he would collapse into floods of tears.  Nothing we could do reassured him, nothing settled him except being taken inside.

Sadly, due to child-carer ratio requirements and the layout of our building, it wasn't possible to allow Jack to stay inside with a carer at these times, and the other children enjoyed their outdoor play so didn't want to join him inside to even out the supervision load. Many times I had to physically carry a screaming bundle of misery outside again, trying desperately to reassure him that it was only a little wind and it wouldn't blow our toys away in the sky.

After a while he got very good at working out how to be taken inside! He asked to go to the toilet, and then zipped off down the corridor to our room where he would immediately start playing intently with a toy- any toy- presumably in the vain hope that he'd be allowed to stay if he was quiet and good.

And of course, wind isn't something you can see, so it was ever so much more difficult to give Jack the reassuring information he needed. Wind gusts can be very sudden and unexpected, even on a bright sunny day. All we could do was try to be understanding, reassuring and patient when Jack had a meltdown and communicate our understanding any way we could. Sometimes I just sat in the doorway and tried to watch Jack inside while also watching the children outside, but this was a less than satisfactory arrangement.

In the end I think Jack's peers helped him more than I was able to. He would get so involved in superhero games with them that he would either not notice the wind or, seeing his peers continuing to play, gain confidence to stay out a little longer.

But we needed to remain alert to the weather conditions when the twins were in attendance, and when we had some violent thunder and hailstorms the next summer we made sure to keep them close to us as we bunkered down inside as far as we could get from the windows. Often their mother would arrive to take them home if she heard a weather report of an approaching storm, being well aware of their fears.

There are many truly terrifying things that can happen to small children, and it's so important to know some back-history on the children you're caring for. If they've witnessed terrible violence in the family home, for example, they may melt down when other children have a minor argument.  This is rational, not irrational; in their experience, minor rows lead to major violence and someone being seriously hurt- perhaps bleeding, screaming or calling the police. If they've experienced sexual abuse, insisting they lie on a bed at rest time may trigger a meltdown. If they've had repeated major operations, a centre visit from the eye or ear doctor may create real fear.

Know your child, and treat children's fears with compassion, understanding and patience. You would want no less yourself.


  1. I can't understand why people think children's fears are somehow less authentic than their own. I mean - consider what a child is. It's a fully-functioning human being with the full gamus of emotions - BUT NO CONTROL OVER THEIR CIRCUMSTANCES! Nearly all the decisions made about their lives are made (even if by default) by their parents, and the remainder are made by their teachers or carers. Children have no control, but they have minds and hearts, and are perfectly aware that they have no control. I know I'd be terrified most of the time if every detail of my life and routine lay in the hands of others. It's not an irrational fear to be afraid of EVERYTHING in those circumstances. Parents need to accord their children's feelings some value, and make decisions that take into account the child's needs as well as the parents' wants. And how few parents do that!

  2. Neither can, I, Nisaba... neither can I. I'm constantly befuddled by the fact that many adults have forgotten what it feels like to be a child.

  3. Hey there, Another great post as always. Hey just wanted to see if your intersted in coming to the BIG steps...Childcare summit in lismore sept 24th. There will be politicians, speakers, q & A, open mike etc. We need all the workers and families to attend. IM doing the rounds at centres so let me knwo where you are??/


  4. Thanks Lisa- not really sure where I'll be then, a few irons in the fire at present- talk to me closer to the time.


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