People can’t learn to be brave unless they’re scared first; courage doesn’t exist without fear. It can be frustrating to be faced with a fearful child, especially when the fears seem so small or petty or easily overcome. Think of the child who won’t go outside because he’s afraid of bees (even though he’s never been stung). We can’t make him push past the fear; we can only support him while he considers the risk of bees versus the lure of the swing set. It’s frustrating to be sure, especially if we spent the whole weekend laboriously putting the climber together, all the while anticipating his excitement. But he needs to learn how to live in a world where there are bees so that he can learn how to live in a world where there are bigger fears — earthquakes and lay-offs and all of the rest. It’s not bees he needs to learn to manage; it’s his own fear.
We can be reassuring without dismissing their fears. We can let them know we understand — bees can be scary — and that we trust they will be able to overcome their fear. We can help them problem-solve and give them the information that we have like that bees are less likely to sting you if you don’t swat at them. We can be patient while they step out cautiously only to run right back in. (Or at least pretend that we’re patient. Excusing yourself to go scream into a pillow in frustration is a perfectly acceptable coping mechanism!)
And, importantly, we can sympathize with them as they lament that oh-so-out-of-reach swingset instead of giving into any temptation to say, “Well, if you weren’t so scared to go out there you could be having fun like your little sister. She isn’t letting bees stop her!” Because if there’s one thing your child already knows it’s how much more fun it would be to NOT be scared of bees or the dark or the puppet at the library story time or that part in The Little Mermaid where the sea witch goes crawling across the boat deck on her elbows with her tentacles waving wildly behind her. So you can be the one who has the confidence he doesn’t quite have for himself yet. You can promise him that the swing set will be there tomorrow and that you’ll make sure his sister gives him a turn on the swing when he’s ready. You can tell him your own stories — how you were afraid to put your face in the water until one day you weren’t. Or how you were afraid you’d go down the drain in the bathtub, too, but then you got bigger and you weren’t as scared anymore.
“You are getting bigger,” you could say. “And you are getting braver.”
Meanwhile, you can tell him that you will sit with him awhile before you go to push his sister on the swing for a bit. And then you will come back to hug him.
He might surprise you. Because sometimes the very best antidote to fear is someone who understands and loves you anyway.