A shadow lurking in a corner, a loud noise in the middle of the night, or someone under their bed – children often have such fears. And they are completely normal – Fear is the evolutionary response that keeps us alive.
We might think that only young kids are plagued with fear, but studies say otherwise. Even infants fear from loud noises (10 days old), loss of support (20 days old), and toy elephant (11 months), among many other stimuli.
We may grow out of childhood fears, some of them still leave us with a psychological state (read: instinct) that we’ll go on to experience throughout our lives. So, it’s important to understand where these childhood fears come from. What creates monsters under our beds? Why do we hide at the mention of a dentist’s appointment?
The source of childhood fears
Despite fear’s evolutionary role and the fact that we are all born with a capacity to fear, it is also a learned response. In 1920, an American Psychologist, Dr. John B. Watson proved through his Little Albert Experiment that an infant can be conditioned to fear white rat when shown with a loud noise in the background. Later, this child developed fear from Santa Claus too! While the experiment was horrible and totally unethical, it did prove that kids can learn fear.
As a parent, we often teach our kids what to be afraid of. Take for example the stories we tell them – there are ghosts and goblins, demons and daanav, etc. Or when we personify heatwave with a bad man who abducts children playing outside during the afternoon. Even an instance as small as a person walking with a face mask on when another family member casually says, “You look like a ghost!” can trigger an image of an actual ghost in the mind of the child and a possibility that they exist, are roaming around and can be seen!
Progression of childhood fears with age
Recall how fun it is to play with an infant’s reaction to her mother hiding her face behind her hands and then suddenly showing it. They smile and chuckle. That happens because their brains are not developed enough to understand that the mother is still there even when she hides her face.
As a toddler, they are still developing object permanence. So, this understanding that their beloved object (parent or toy) continues to exist even when they can’t see it, for example, when lights are turned off. Developmentally, these fears are appropriate and organic.
Up till the age of 3 when a child starts confidently walking and running and exploring the world, she is experiencing a range of stimuli some of which will not make sense to her. During this time, the child’s fears are a direct response to the threatening stimulus at the moment such as a barking dog, loud noise, hot surface, etc.
Age of 4 is where kids’ imagination takes flight. It’s the time when they have imaginary friends or play make-believe (pretend) with friends. This imagination also enables them to spin stories around scary possibilities because if you can sip imaginary tea, you can also hide an imaginary monster in the cupboard.
Between the age 7 and 9, they start questioning things, even their own knowledge and understanding of things. Suddenly, they are not so sure of their reality. “If birds can die, can I also die?” “Will grandma become a ghost when she dies?” “If Coco is a friendly dog, then why did he bite the neighbour?” “Do all stepmothers have wicked magic?” These are some of their common fears which may get influenced by the culture kids live in – A child raised in village will fear more of witches and djinns than bogeyman and Alps.
While kids between ages 3 and 7 kids understand that fears exist in mind and everyone has different fears, they still are not able to rationalise it away. The fact that most monsters in stories defy the natural laws of gravity (flying without wings), death (demons from the afterlife), or life itself (half-human, half-goat), etc. instils a fear of general laws of nature that they cannot justify. For example, swings and disfigured faces.
When fear becomes fun
Come adolescence and children’s fear becomes something to chase after. They want to take the risk of exposure to fear to get over it. Thanks to dopamine remodelling of teen brains, their social reward system (read: attention and fame amongst peers) kicks off which throws them in a state of chasing that high with one thrilling experience after another.
In brief, risk-taking increases between childhood and adolescence as a result of changes around the time of puberty in what I refer to as the brain’s socio-emotional system that lead to increased reward-seeking, especially in the presence of peers. Risk-taking declines between adolescence and adulthood because of changes in what I refer to as the brain’s cognitive control system – changes which improve individuals’ capacity for self-regulation, which occur gradually and over the course of adolescence and young adulthood. The differing timetables of these changes – the increase in reward-seeking, which occurs early and is relatively abrupt, and the increase in self-regulatory competence, which occurs gradually and is not complete until the mid-20s, makes mid-adolescence a time of heightened vulnerability to risky and reckless behaviour. (source)
Just like this increase in dopamine happened during pre-teen and teen, the same way the decline happens when reaching adulthood. That’s why, scaring them about the consequences does little work in dissuading them. They are actually obeying their natural desires and development process and will eventually, come out of it.
This article is part one of our series on Childhood Fears. To learn about how parents go wrong and instil fear in their child and how they can respond to their child’s fears in the right way, read part two and part three.