Fuel Your Child’s Fear-Fighting-Muscles

masksEveryone’s afraid of something. Admit it: you’ve probably got a secret stash of fears that you manage to keep under wraps most of the time. Snakes, planes (or snakes on planes), heights, germs, you name it. Some are benign, some are serious, but there are literally millions of things to be afraid of in this world.

Kids have fears, too. Many in fact. And sometimes they really struggle hard with those fears because they don’t yet know what is real and what is fantasy or even whether that thing growling in the corner is alive and angry or just a noisy machine that can be turned off.

Left unchecked, fears can be debilitating. Learning to face them requires courage. But where does courage come from? Luckily, life provides us with a multitude of opportunities for developing it. And these opportunities often show up in the most unexpected of places.

A case in point: Years ago, my in-laws returned from a trip to New Zealand with a couple of intricately carved Maori tribal masks that had eerily glowing abalone shell eyes. The faces of these masks were originally intended to be, I assume, a bit frightening. But to the typical adult checking them out at home or in a museum, they just looked kind of cool and artsy.

When we went down to visit the grandparents after their trip, they were eager to show off their unique new souvenirs. We followed them into their study and there they were, hanging proudly on the wall. But as soon as my son, then about two, laid eyes on those bad boys, he let out a wail that may well have been heard as far away as New Zealand! That poor kid ran for the door as fast as his little feet could carry him, and never looked back.

Once we caught up with him, we carefully (and relentlessly) explained that those masks were not alive, that they were made out of wood and that someone had carved them for “an art project.” Patiently we told him that they weren’t real faces, they couldn’t hurt him, they couldn’t move, and he didn’t have to worry about them. After a few minutes, he calmed down again, but there was no way he was going in for a second look, that was for sure.

As the days went by, he kept bringing up the subject of those masks again and again. Luckily, he had a lot of words for such a little guy, so he was able to verbalize some of his worries and we were able to keep explaining and reassuring. But not only did we talk endlessly about those d@mn masks, we also drew pictures of them and looked in books for pictures of other masks so that he could carefully study them from the safety of our laps.

Then a few weeks later, we headed back down to Grandma and Grandpa’s for another visit. We had only been there a few minutes when our little guy walked purposefully up to his grandma. He looked her in the eye and in all seriousness and in a deep, low, monotone voice said, “Show me dem masks!” It took a few minutes for her to figure out what he was talking about but then the lightbulb went on. She picked him up and together they walked into the study…

Grandma kept a healthy distance from the wall of terror but stood calmly before it nonetheless, holding tight to her little grandson. His kept his head buried in her shoulder until he got up the nerve to peek out. He was trying hard to be brave and to face his fear straight on. It was tough, but he did it. Together, they stood there for several minutes looking at the masks and talking about them. And then, suddenly, that was it. He was ready to move on to the kitchen and snag one of her home made cookies.

For the next several months, he made a bee line for those masks (with a parent or grandparent in tow) the minute he got to their house. Eventually, they lost their power over him and he no longer feared them. But he continued to maintain a healthy respect for them for many more years.

Then over time a funny thing happened: “Show me dem masks!” morphed into a family story that took on a life and meaning of it’s own. The cute little anecdote eventually became a symbol for something much bigger.

A few weeks ago my daughter shared a story with me about a conversation she and her big brother had last year. They were talking on the phone the night before he took the bar exam. He was worried, of course, about how he would do and she was trying her best to reassure him. At one point in the conversation though, he just started laughing and said, “Show me dem masks!” and she knew he was ready.

P.S. When my in-laws eventually moved into a retirement home, they gave away many of their belongings. Those infamous “teaching” masks, which had once caused so much anguish for my first born, now hang proudly on his own wall.

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.


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