There is an insidious undercurrent that can seep, unbeknownst to us, into our children’s hearts, affecting their behaviour and their confidence. It can alter their thinking, posture and shake their enjoyment of life and bigness in the world.
When the baby is constantly crying and squirming, refusing to nap more than 40 minutes a day. When our toddler won’t let us out of sight, or when children are picky with their food. When siblings become aggressive, a child is clingy or passive, or needs a lengthy bedtime routine to be able to fall asleep, we assume these are typical kid things. But what do these seemingly unrelated behaviours have in common?
Fear can accumulate in good children, who have good parents. It weighs on them and causes their world and the opportunities available to them to become restricted. It prevents them from feeling relaxed enough to eat or sleep effortlessly. Fear makes a short separation from mummy feel life threatening. It signals such desperate alarm in challenging situations that they are prone to strike out or bite or lose bladder control. It drives them to answer back or appear defiant as a defence. Fear creates anxiety, restlessness and rigid or compulsive behaviours. Fear causes some children to quietly retreat from things they love. The good news is we can help our children recover from fear!
It is guaranteed for children to experience frightening situations, no matter how well we love and care for them. It’s certainly no-one’s fault. We don’t always know when fear set in. It may have been during a stressful time during their perinatal period. Perhaps it arose due to a separation from either parent, or a time where the family was under duress and the level of warm attention available was limited. Maybe during a scary event, like a dog bite or a startling noise. Sometimes a few minor incidents can cause fear to accumulate and sometimes we’ll never know what exactly was so frightening. It isn’t really important to know. What is helpful is to understand the workings of fear and how we can release it.
Babies are born wired for connection; for long hours of skin to skin; for their gaze to be met with contingent adult eyes; for feeling ‘felt’ as their brain syncs with yours. Our brains are inter-relational and it is through being attuned to an adult brain that children can feel connection. Sometimes there will be (normal) breaks in connection. When you can’t pay attention. When you are juggling six things at once. When the phone rings, or an older child needs something. For the limbic system (the emotional brain), constantly on the look out to monitor emotional and physical safety, this will signal an ’emergency’. The emotional brain doesn’t have any function for higher thought, logic or reason. Those instead develop in the pre-frontal cortex, primarily in the first few years of life. The primal limbic system scans for what can be perceived as unsafe (‘There’s noone here for me!’) and signals this threat to the nervous system. This can be simply that your child can’t feel enough of your attention and proximity in that moment. Their behaviour will either go off track or they will go into emotional release through crying, laughter or tantrums. Both pathways are a signal for connection.
Thankfully, the body actually has an innate recovery system for the hurts that happen. When we move in close, with our warmth and availability and stop the off track behaviour eg. (holding the pouring hand) “I can’t let you pour cereal on the floor, Love”, often resulting in emotional release “waaahhh nasty cereal”, the child’s limbic system gets to regulate in the safety of our attention and offload fear or hurt that have nothing to do with the current cereal situation. When we cry, laugh or rage with the caring presence of a loved one, we are able to release the upset rather than store it in the body. This is the body’s recovery system. Children, being very much in touch with their bodily wisdom, use all kinds of pretexts (like ‘not liking’ the cereal they usually love) to work on feelings about something bigger.
When we (through no fault of our own) can’t or didn’t know to offer our attention to a child experiencing fear, the feelings of terror or distress generated by this ’emergency’ get stashed away in the figurative emotional backpack that our children carry through life. There they lie dormant, subtly influencing our child’s thinking and behaviours and waiting to be triggered when something reminds them of the initial hurt. When we carry around tension from life’s hurts, it causes strain on the body and nervous system.
Unfortunately our stiff upper lip society generally tends to frown on emotional expression. Babies are jiggled, fed, pacified or shushed. Children are bribed, scolded, hushed, ignored, distracted or told to be brave. By adulthood, most people apologise if they cry in public. Often this comes with the good intention of trying to help the child feel better, perceiving that if they are crying they must be hurting. The truth is that the hurt already happened and is registered in the body. The crying (or other emotional release) is the process of this hurt finding its way out. It is the recovery. For children who haven’t had the opportunity to regularly release emotion with our support, there may be a bit of a backlog and it’s this backlog that drives the fear based behaviours. Their emotional backpack has become quite full and the feelings have to pop out somewhere.
Fear can be one of the harder emotions to release. Lighter layers of fear can be dispersed through laughter, which makes physical, rough ‘n tumble play ideal. But to shed some of the scarier feelings, a child will go into a terror release, during which they will re-experience the situation when the fear went in and fight for themselves in the safety of your attention. When children are releasing terror they often cry wildly and tearlessly, with their eyes closed, getting hot and sweaty, struggling and shrieking or saying urgent, extreme things.
So what can we do to help our children recover from scary events and release fear from their system?
- Listening Partnerships. Our children take their cues from their adults and it’s common for their fears to be somehow related to our own. When we can connect with another adult to work on the feelings that come up for us around this situation, we make ourselves more available to support our kids with theirs. It can also be scary work supporting a child who is in terror, especially if we have fears of our own. Our capacity to listen and remain calm and patient is directly proportional to how much listening we receive ourselves. For more information on Listening Partnerships, check out handinhandparenting.org
- Rough play. Children feel safe when they can come right up against our body in play. Anything silly that will get laughter going like sock wrestling or pillow fighting is ideal. Laughter lifts lighter fear. Try games that also boost your child’s sense of safety and importance, such as snatching them from their other parent, arguing over who they belong to and who loves them most, stealing your precious one from each other back and forth.
- When you feel resourced enough to work on a fear based emotional project, you can start the process by setting kind limits around areas of rigidity. When there is fear below the surface, children can develop little quirks. You may notice small areas of rigidity that have an urgency behind them. They must use a certain bowl, or they insist on wearing their socks this way. They have to have an audiobook playing so they can fall asleep. When we mistake these rigidities for simple preferences we buy into the compensatory behaviours that hide fear. By setting kind limits around these ‘I think you’ll do fine with the other bowl’ or ‘We’re going to go to sleep without the audiobook tonight’, we give them an opportunity to free themselves from the bind of fear that constricts their power and choice. A child is likely to respond to this limit by going into emotional release.
- When your child has big emotions, you can stay close and calmly offer your attention for the duration of the upset. You might say things like ‘I’m right here’ When children go into a terror release it’s helpful to anchor them in their current surroundings, saying things like ‘We’re in your room, Mum is downstairs, I’ll make sure you don’t get hurt.’ You can also hold limits around any irrational, urgent responses such as needing mum, or a second glass of water right now! You might say ‘you’ll see Mum soon’ or ‘we’ll get more water in a minute.’ This certainty that they are OK counters the urgency and offers the safety to move through rather than shut down the feelings. If you find your child’s fear has triggered your own, you won’t be an effective listener so it’s time to swap with another adult, take 5 minutes or just soothe them in whatever way you think will stop the release for now. You can come back to this and you get to choose when you listen.
I hope this perspective feels exciting for the fresh potential it offers for liberation and reclamation of locked away energy. See if you can pay attention to where feelings are tightly wound in your family and begin to gently unravel them. Always lead with the least intervention needed to allow feelings to release. What’s on the other side is more playfulness, more co-operation and exciting leaps and bounds in development and creativity. Enjoy.