As new parents, we are tasked with facing our fears on a daily basis and it is our kids who teach and encourage us to take risks and step outside of our comfort zones.
When my three daughters were young, I signed them up for every activity the local rec centre offered. I wanted them to try everything in the hopes they would, through experience, find their own passion.
They all decided they loved to swim.
I was never a great swimmer when I was young and I was terrified of open water thanks to an untimely viewing of the movie JAWS. My last swimming report card would attest, “Elizabeth can float unassisted for 10 seconds with some assistance.”
But my young kids wanted to be in the water.
I suddenly found myself wearing a bathing suit in front of a group of enthusiastic, new parents, dunking, singing, squeaking toys and leaving my dignity at the door – and it was wonderful.
Psychologist and author Sara Dimerman suggests there’s a simple explanation for our newfound bravery. “The reason that most parents want to face their fears is because they’re afraid that if they don’t, their children will be affected by their modelling and take on the same fears too.”
So we jump in the pool or we board a plane or ride a roller coaster to prevent our children from developing our same anxieties.
Sara says, “Often no words are spoken about the fear, but the child picks up on her parent’s body language and behaviour, copies and may even feel it too.”
It’s important to face these fears, but it’s also OK to speak honestly with your child and let your son or daughter know you are human, and that you too feel stress and anxiety in some situations.
My husband won’t help when our girls are sick with the stomach flu. He negotiated early on in our parenting journey, “I’ll take blood – you take vomit.” He didn’t think he could handle the exposure and all that comes with cleaning up after a sick child, except he has stepped in with an old towel and cold compress time and again.
I asked Sara Dimerman if this is the equivalent of having “super human strength.” That we would fiercely defend our kids from perceived danger and our reactions are almost instant despite our own fears.
“We often don’t know what we are capable of until we put another person’s needs ahead of our own. The difference is that when our child is in danger, we don’t have time to fret about our own feelings. We just dive into action and then when we think back later, wonder where we got our strength from.”
How about acting silly in front of strangers? Katie Todd of Guelph, Ont. describes that feeling of walking with purpose into a building you’ve never visited before, pretending you know where the coat cubbies are and the procedure for signing in, all to maintain a level of comfort for your child, before being herded into a circle and asked to sing (sometimes solo) in front of a group of total strangers.
In some cases, we don’t even know the words. Sometimes there are actions and dance moves. I thought the number one fear in humans was public speaking and here I am expected to do the “running man” while making mouse ears and shout-singing “Wake up little bunnies, hop hop hop.” This seems so unnatural and yet we do it.
“As parents we choose to confront our fears because we don’t want our children to experience that fear, too,” says Sara. “However, even with the best of intentions, our children often share our fears – sometimes because they have inherited that tendency and often because there are many universal fears.”
So maybe it’s sleeping outside in a tent or holding a python at a birthday party or crawling through a dark tunnel “fort” alongside an excited toddler.
Facing our fears as parents is natural.
My daughters are now 11, nine and five. A year ago, I joined a Masters swimming group and swim lengths twice a week with a great bunch of parents. I haven’t yet agreed to swim with sharks.
Psychologist Sara Dimerman offers this advice for dealing with your child’s fears.
Acknowledge that fear is a normal human emotion and that everyone experiences it – some more than others.
Monitor your reaction to experiences or things that you are afraid of so that you don’t over react. For example, if you see a spider, try not to squeal or scream. Your actions will affect how your children perceive the event, too.
Let your children know that even when it takes a lot of courage to approach things they are afraid of, they will be glad they did when they overcome the fear.
Model facing fear head on.
Let your children know the anticipation of something is often much more scary than the actual event – getting a needle, for example.