Learning to put aside your preconceived ideas about dangerous people is particularly important when you start talking to your children about safety. They need to be able to discern between perceived danger and the observable actions that actually accompany violence.
Fear can have crippling effects on both children and adults. Most people have some sort of irrational phobia; maybe it's spiders, tight spaces, dogs, or just a general fear of other people. What you have to remember is that most fears are entirely illogical and based primarily on our preconceived notions about people and things. Some of these fears we develop through past experiences; for example, maybe a dog bit someone when they were young, and now that fear of dogs has followed them into adulthood.
Another way we can develop irrational fears is by inheriting them. Children learn from example, and if they see an adult in their lives exhibit a fear such as a fear of heights, then the child is much more likely to develop that fear themselves. Dr. Francine Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist and anxiety specialist at Morristown Memorial Hospital in New Jersey, said, "This learning occurs through parents' verbal and nonverbal cues to their children." The best way to prevent children from inheriting their fears or phobias is for adults to acknowledge and evaluate the validity of their own fears. Once we can confront and control our anxieties, it becomes easier to help our children navigate their own. Here are four ways I've found to help guide my kids through their own fears.
1. Take your child's fear seriously: Although some fears may be irrational, they are all very real and can have devastating effects on our mental state. The fear of interpersonal human aggression can be very frightening and cause us to avoid interacting with others. The fear of financial loss, the death of a loved one, or sickness are all genuine and relevant fears. As adults, we deal with these fears as best we can, and we try not to let the effects of this fear spread to our children. In doing so, we can sometimes forget that our child's fear of "the monster under the bed," although irrational to us, is just as real and scary as the fears you have as an adult. Allow your child to express their concerns without judgment. Acknowledge that the fear exists, and then you can begin to work through it together.
2. Work together: "Once you've offered reassurance, it's important to move on quickly," says Dr. Rachel Busman, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. "We don't want to dwell on offering comfort around the scary thing, because even that can become reinforcing and take on a life of its own." Instead, start talking about how you'll work together to help your child start feeling braver and get to the point where they're able to manage the fear on their own.
3. Give your child control: Both of my daughters used to have an issue with going to bed on their own. Both wanted me or their mom to stay in their rooms, sing, tell stories, play ... anything but sleep. Eventually, we had do develop a plan to control their fear of being alone at night so that we could all get to bed at a reasonable hour. The idea was to get them to put themselves to bed by the end of the month, and it went something like this:
• Week 1: Business as usual, but we started talking to the girls more seriously about why it was important for them to start putting themselves to bed.
• Week 2: We would read one story, sing one song together, and then mommy or daddy would tuck them in, turn off the lights, and be right down the hall.
• Week 3: We would read one story or sing one song (not both). Then, the girls could turn off the lights themselves, and we would all go to bed.
• Week 4: We could read and sing before bedtime, but once the girls were in their rooms, it was their responsibility to turn their lights out and put themselves to bed. By slowly allowing our girls to take more control over their own routine, they began to feel more independent and less fearful. You have to remember that this exchange of control takes time and won't always be easy. But try to be encouraging. Compliment your children on their bravery and let them know that you're proud of them every chance you get.
4. Don't use fear as a tool: One thing that's always bothered me is when I see adults using fear to control children. Fear of abstract concepts like "the boogeyman" are perfectly normal, but parents often use authoritative figures to scare and regulate their children's behavior.. Author Gavin de Becker points out in his amazing book, Protecting The Gift, Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane) that when parents want to underscore the importance of some given instruction, they often attach some scary outcome to it: "Come right home; you don't want to get kidnapped"; "Don't go there alone, remember anyone could be a killer." These scare tactics don't work and can only have two possible outcomes.
It will work and the child will be afraid.
It won't work and the parent will lose credibility.
The parent who loses credibility is not an effective teacher. How effective is it to tell your child that sitting too close to the television will cause them to go blind, when they know full well that it won't? If your child thinks all parental warnings are just a litany of outlandish claims, they will be less likely to believe any of them.
Parents have to pay close attention to the fears of their children, and in most cases, we have the tools we need to help them work through their anxieties. On the other hand, if your child's fears are persistent, overly intense, or begin interfering with their daily life, it might be time to seek some outside help. According to The Child Mind Institute, signs that a fear may be something more include: "Obsessive worrying: Your child fixates on the object of their fear, thinking or talking about it often, or even when the trigger isn't present. For example, becoming terribly anxious months before their next dentist visit."
Fears that limit your child's ability to enjoy their life or participate in activities. For example, refusing to go on a class trip to the park because there might be dogs there. Panic attacks. Compulsive or disruptive behavior. Withdrawing from activities, school, or family. If your child's fears seem like they might be something more serious, make an appointment to talk with a professional to see if more help is necessary.
About five years after my girls overcame their fear of being alone at night, I began working with them on various forms of self-defense. Situational awareness exercises, hand-to-hand defensive techniques, and rearms safety were just a few common topics in the Quesenberry house. Part of teaching your kids about the scarier aspects of life is to take the mystery out of it and even expose them to a little controlled fear once in a while to gauge their reactions to it.
Be honest, we've all taken the opportunity to prank our kids with a good scare from time to time. I'm personally notorious for this. I clearly remember the night our little training sessions began to take hold, and things took a drastic turn for dear old dad. I had recently accepted a position as the lead rearms instructor at the Federal Air Marshal Training Center in New Jersey. My daughters shared a room that had a large walk-in closet along the wall opposite their beds. One night my wife and I decided to watch The Shining. The girls wanted to watch it with us and simply wouldn't take no for an answer. Needless to say, when the movie was over, the girls were terrified.
My wife and I quickly developed a plan to give them a good scare before bed, just to teach them a lesson. My wife kept the girls occupied in the living room while I acted like I was taking the dog out for a walk. Instead of taking the dog out, I quietly slipped into their room and hid in the big walk-in closet, waiting for my chance to scare them. My wife then sent them to bed, knowing that I was set and ready. As I listened at the closet door, I could hear the girls getting into their beds.
Once I thought they were settled, I began growling and scratching at the door. I was so giddy at the opportunity to scare the bejesus out of them I could barely contain myself. I could hear the girls whispering to each other outside the door and shuffling around. In my mind's eye, I could imagine the girls jumping in bed with one another and pulling the covers up over their heads in fright. That's when I pounced. I swung the door open and screamed at the top of my lungs. But instead of two terrified little girls, I was met with a hastily built barricade behind which my oldest daughter Elda stood with a fully loaded Nerf gun pointed directly at my chest. She was in a perfect modified isosceles stance and her two-hand thumbs-forward grip was impeccable. She had her little sister Emily behind her ready to protect her at all costs.
I had never been more proud! Not only had my baby girl controlled her fear, she also confronted it head-on.
The above is an excerpt from Spotting Danger Before It Spots Your Kids: Teaching Situational Awareness to Keep Children Safe by Gary Quesenberry, Federal Air Marshal (Ret.), pub date May 2021, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 978-1-59439-811-7