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Getting Rid of Distorted Fears, Part One: Why Kids Have Distorted Fears

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Distorted fears can interfere with daily life.

Some kids express fears that prompt others to go, “Huh? You’re afraid of what???”  That’s because whatever they fear—riding an elevator, going upstairs or to bed alone, being near a dog—is just no big deal to most other people.

So then, how do we end up with a distorted fear in the first place?

They usually originate as a result of underdeveloped lower centers of the brain. In such case, information is not always processed as others receive it.  Not only can such kids register something ordinary as fearful, but such underdevelopment also makes it more likely they’ll then respond with a fight or flight reaction.

However, the fear persists for several other reasons.

For example, suppose a parent immediately comforts a child whenever she reacts to a distorted fear. That child’s brain now registers this response as validating her distorted sense of danger and reaction to it. From a child’s brain’s perspective, there’s now no difference in how a parent responds, for example, to an adverse reaction to clowns (which poses no true threat) than to rattlesnakes (which do represent danger).

It’s also possible that a parent’s subconscious is inadvertently keeping the fear alive.  For example, a parent may feel needed whenever she comforts or rescues her child. In such case, the child will continue to assume the role of someone needing to be rescued.

Distorted fears may additionally persist when family members acquiesce and adjust their actions around the child’s fear. For example, parents may ensure that whatever the child is afraid of isn’t “out” when they visit friends and family.  Or, at the airport, they’ll drag luggage up the escalator since elevators cause the child to have a meltdown.

However, now the child has zero motivation to overcome the fear. Not only does everyone dance around whatever frightens her, but her brain additionally registers a (distorted) sense of power over others and an (unrealistic) expectation that everyone will always be so accommodating.

Last, distorted fears persist when kids don’t trust the person in charge to lead. In other words, it should suffice for a parent to merely say, “You can trust me. It’s completely safe to (fill in the blank).”

Yet, if there’s an underlying distrust, all assurances in the world don’t seem to make a difference.  That’s why separation anxiety is always a distorted fear.  In other words, why would parents ever leave a child somewhere they didn’t believe was safe?

So, it’s important to ask: On a scale of 1 to 10, how badly do I want my child’s fear to be gone?  Anything less than an immediate, forceful “10!” response ensures the fear remains and the process outlined in Part 2 will not be effective.

Occasionally, a child is so invested in keeping the distorted fear that he refuses to participate in the process to eradicate it. That’s good feedback that this child actually perceives it’s more beneficial to keep the fear than to lose it. So, here, the first step is to help the child shift that (in itself) distorted thinking to wanting the fear to go away.

How do we do that? Well, if our child, for example, won’t ride in an elevator, now he stays home any time we’re going somewhere that has an elevator.  If our child is afraid of dogs, now he stays home any time dogs might even be in the vicinity of wherever we are going . . . and so on.

Note that we’re never angry or sad when we leave the child behind. Instead, we just calmly explain to our child that we (the family) are no longer willing to perpetuate a lie (there’s danger when there’s not). We’re also no longer willing to be hostage to distorted thinking by avoiding whatever he’s afraid of, and we’re no longer willing to have our time (wherever) delayed by a meltdown.

But most of all, we remind the child that he chose to not participate in a process to eliminate his fear. So, that means he’s also choosing a life where his fear will continue to affect him in undesirable ways . . .such as being apart from others and not going different places.

The good new is: The child is usually ready to begin the process after being left behind just one time. :-)

However, there’s an important footnote to addressing distorted fears. Some kids with underdeveloped lower centers of the brain have what’s called gravitational insecurity. That means they actually do not feel connected to the earth.

In such case, fast movement, such as going on slides and swings at the park, is truly terrifying.  (Imagine if we were asked to do that from a high tight-rope.)

So for such kids, fear of movement is real—not distorted—and, therefore, we do not address this with the steps presented in Part 2.  This fear will only go away when the lower centers of the brain develop as intended.

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