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Leaning into fear: building courage in little kids

Uncategorized Jul 11, 2023

On the weekend my family had breakfast with a giant white lion named Mishka.

No joke this lion weighed 300kgs and was sitting less than two meters from where we were seated to have breakfast. We were having an overnight zoo experience, my kids were delighted! Well, three of them were, and my youngest son was on the stairs refusing to come to breakfast. At least NOT while that lion was there.

My son had heard this lion roar on his way down the stairs, and there was no way we were going to convince him to come to breaky if Mishka was joining us.

  • We tried telling him he was safe, the lion was safely behind glass. 
  • We tried telling him that we his parents wouldn’t put him in danger, he could just trust us.
  • We told him if he didn’t come, he’d miss coco pops and pancakes.

His resolve was firm. Hard no.

As a parent, these moments test us. Not just because we worry about our child’s resilience and their ability to be brave but also because often a child struggling with fear is impacting others around us; people are looking, staff are waiting, or it’s simply inconvenient - and your child is blocking the stairs.

While we know it’s human to have fears. While we know the threat of a literal lion at breaky is (in reality) a smart thing for a child to be scared of: our instinct is to fix, solve, apply logic or make it better. We want to stop these feelings because when our kids struggle – so do we.

Whether it’s a lion in the dining room, or more common place things like a trip to the doctor, hairdresser, the dark, or fear of imaginary things that go bump in the night. Real or not, fears are real to our kids.

 The problem with this, is that our job is to share our calm, not join our child in the struggle. So, when we start to join them in worry - about their resilience, or them blocking the stairs, we are adding fuel to the fire.

 Harriet Lerner sums it up like this: “Anxiety is contagious. Intensity and reactivity only breed more of the same. Calm is also contagious. Nothing is more important than getting a grip on your own reactivity”

The truth is - the kids are alright. They know innately how to express their feelings - it's us, their big people that struggle when they do! The truth is, the hardest part of parenting from the minute that newborn is in your arms is the struggle we have is not with our kids reactivity - but with managing ours.

When my kids struggle - my go to reaction is often anxiety. I need to fix this, teach them, help them, I wonder what will people think? and on it goes......this is what was happening on the stairs on the weekend. Then I realised that wasn’t working.

So I stopped. I stopped trying to put out the fire, trying to make it better, trying to talk about the pancakes or the coco pops and I simply said… “I get it. That lion is huge, and it makes sense to be worried”…. With that, my little boys shoulders relaxed.

 While I know at a cognitive level “we need to name it to tame it” it’s not always easy to find this ability in the moment. But when we can things go so much better. Once my son felt heard we brainstormed through the problem. You see he really did want coco pops, but didn’t want to see the lion. I suggested I could carry him to the table with his face away from the lion, and he could keep his back to the lion as he ate. He agreed this would work and off we went!

Later that day I asked him how it felt getting down there and having breaky with a lion? He said it felt brave and also scary all at once. This is the thing about courage, it’s not the absence of fear, it’s feeling the fear, and still leaning into it as far as we can. Breaky was a success, and my son loved the coco pops!





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