Your infant or toddler likely tends to react to the loudness of thunder. If thunder and lightning are a little frightening to you, this is communicated to your child. If, however, you let your child know thunder is natural, talk about the lightning and are positive about the storm, your child gradually learns to experience little discomfort during storms. An unusually loud thunderclap may still be startling, but there is no unreasonable fear of storms. Children who are afraid of storms have typically learned this fear from adults who are also afraid of storms. The same learning goes on with the fear of snakes and spiders. Adults learn the fears from other adults when young and then in turn pass them along to their children.
A fear of snakes is something you probably want your children to develop. After your children get a little older, it may be useful to teach them to differentiate between harmful snakes and unharmful snakes. The same rationale holds for spiders. Interestingly, a negative or fear reaction to spiders is helpful when children grow up and are expected to keep living areas clean. Cobwebs are a real problem and some fear of spiders partly makes adults insistent cobwebs be cleaned up. You teach your children to be a little afraid of germs, not to get dirt in their mouths, and to get clean after getting dirty. This is helpful in much the same way a fear of spiders and the association with cobwebs is helpful.
Thus, you see almost all fears are taught. Some fears are helpful in terms of self-protection and future adjustment. Other fears, however, are quite debilitating. In fact, some people become so afraid they do not go out of their houses, do not talk with others, cannot tolerate meeting strangers, keep themselves and their living areas antiseptically clean, or are irrationally afraid of all dogs.
Although most fears are learned, they are not necessarily taught to children by parents. For example, a young girl developed a fear of flying birds in a somewhat unusual way. She was playing in the yard one day and approached a baby bird lying on the ground. Just as she got to the baby bird, the mother bird swooped down to protect her baby. Although the mother bird did not attack her, the girl thought the bird was going to. She became terrified and ran into the house. Her mother told her she should leave baby birds alone since mother birds are sometimes quite protective, and because she might injure the baby bird. Her terror had been so intense the child unconsciously generalized the fear to all flying birds. Although she now knows rationally it is unlikely a flying bird will hurt her, the fear remains. Many fears are learned through such life experiences.
In addition to fears learned through identification with the fears of adults, through direct teaching by adults, and through unusual life situations, fears arise when children confuse possibility with probability. The idea may be best understood through an example.
The parents of a seven-year-old notice he is developing an unreasonable fear of tornadoes. He asks a lot of questions about tornadoes, and becomes apprehensive every time there is a storm or forecast of a storm. At school, there have been discussions about tornadoes, other children have talked about tornadoes they have presumably heard of, and there have been tornado alerts and drills. All of this has raised in the child’s mind the possibility of being involved in a tornado and being hurt or killed as a result of one. For this child, the fear of tornadoes is very real. And it is possible the child becomes involved in a tornado. The probability of this happening, though, is extremely low. His fear comes from confusing possibility with probability. Here are other examples: A small child reacts intensely when left with the baby-sitter. Is the child afraid of the baby-sitter? Maybe a little. More likely, though, she is afraid her parents may abandon her. The possibility of being abandoned and the possibility of being harmed by the baby-sitter are untempered by the probability of either event. Yes, an occasional child is attacked by a dog, sometimes one or both parents are killed in accidents, some people do go to the hospital and die, occasionally physicians do extremely painful things to children, airplanes do sometimes crash, sometimes houses do burn down or are destroyed by tornadoes, and so on. Life is full of possible danger and harm. Most everyone knows this, but most adults go through life giving little thought to possible harms and dangers since they know the probability of the worst happening is extremely low. Their fears are tempered by their judgment of probability. As children grow, possible harm and possible disaster gradually come under the influence of probability determinations.
How do you as a parent help your children learn this distinction? First, they learn a lot about probability all by themselves, through life experience. Second, occasionally you talk directly with them about the idea of probability. For young children, it is very important not to confuse them or give explanations beyond their ability to understand. For example, your preschooler asks if you are going to crash when you are driving on a snowy day. Do you explain to your child the probability of wrecking is fairly low although the possibility of crashing does exist? No, you simply tell the child you are not going to wreck and everything is going to be fine. What if you do wreck? Well, this is just one of those things you deal with if it happens. Similarly, your child asks you if lightning is going to hit the house and burn it down. You say, “No. There is no reason to worry.” Children learn you are not always right, but they also learn things usually turn out as you say.
To summarize about the development of fear: Few fears are innate. Almost all fears are learned. Many are picked up from parents who are afraid. Some fears are taught unintentionally through the behavior of adults. Some fears are learned through negative life experiences. Most fears involve an unconscious equating of possibility with probability. Fear is truly one of the most difficult issues confronted by parents. Helping children deal with fear in a healthy way is one of the most frequently mishandled parent/child issues.