Kids Talk About: Feeling Scared
Everybody is afraid of something. That’s what more than 1,700 kids told us when we asked them about fears and scary stuff. Some don’t like the dark. Others hate nightmares and scary movies. And then there are those who want to run away from mean dogs, snakes, and creepy crawly spiders.
Tommy, 11, fears the dark because he worries that someone might break into his house.
Madison, 10, is afraid of shots (immunizations) and was once teased because she said she was afraid of thunderstorms. “I tried to take my words back, but they knew anyway. I was really embarrassed,” she said.
The Top Fears
We gave kids a list of 14 scary things and asked which one frightened them the most. Here are the top 5 answers from our survey:
- scary movies and TV shows
- nightmares and scary dreams
- thunderstorms, hurricanes, and other violent weather
- war and terrorism
- sounds I hear at night
But not everyone is afraid of the same things. And what makes one person scared can be no big deal for someone else. Plenty of kids said their biggest fear wasn’t on our list.
Rachel, 11, was one of them. She’s most afraid of giant jellyfish that live off the coast of Australia. “I would like to get over them because they’re bigger than people and they have huge stingers that can kill someone in 3 seconds,” Rachel said.
Kate, 9, wishes she could get over her “whole back-flip problem. I never do it when I know I can. I am scared I will hurt myself,” she said.
A couple kids said funerals scared them. Fireworks frightened other kids. Even going alone to a big bathroom — like the kind in school or at the mall — can be scary, according to a few kids.
Morgan wishes she would stop being afraid to ride roller coasters. Why? “Because hey, I’m 9 years old, and my whole family loves them.” And not just that, Morgan said. “My best friend Kerri said that I was weird for not liking so many things that are fun.”
What’s Fear Anyway?
Fear is a feeling that everyone has — it’s programmed into all of us — and that’s a good thing because fear is there to protect us. We’re born with a sense of fear so we can react to something that could be dangerous.
Babies cry when they’re afraid, even if that loud noise that startled them is just an older brother banging pots and pans in the kitchen. The baby cries, and mom comes over to soothe him or her, helping the baby feel safe and OK again. There, that’s better! Now, with the help of mom, the baby has just experienced calming down after feeling afraid — something that every person needs to learn as they grow up. (Nice job, baby!) Bigger kids hear that loud clanging and say, “No big deal. It’s just my brother making noise again.”
Real vs. Pretend
The best way to get over a fear is to get more information about it. As kids get older, they understand more and start seeing the difference between real and pretend. So when William’s imagination leads him to think of witches and werewolves, he can tell himself, “Wait a minute. They’re only pretend. I don’t need to worry about them.”
The same goes for the dark. A kid’s imagination can start playing tricks when the lights go out. What’s under my bed? Is that a burglar I hear? With the help of a parent, kids can get more comfortable in the dark. Using a nightlight or shining a flashlight under the bed to see that there’s nothing there can help fight that fear.
You might say, but burglars can be real, what then? True, but you can feel safer knowing that the door is locked and a parent is nearby to keep an eye out for any problems. In other words, get snuggled in and get some sleep!
When Fears Are OK
Other fears that kids have make sense and do not need to be conquered. If you’re afraid to ride your bike on a busy highway, right on! You should be afraid because it’s dangerous. There’s no need to get over a fear like that, not even if someone dares you. Find a safe place to ride instead.
It’s also OK for Rachel to be afraid of that big jellyfish in Australia because it’s truly dangerous. But she doesn’t have to be afraid of it all the time — or even every time she swims. It lives only in certain ocean waters. So when she’s not swimming in one of them, no worries about the big jellyfish.
And it’s OK for Kate to be a little fearful about doing the back-flip, because she could get hurt. But Kate also can create safer conditions for trying her back-flip, like having a parent or coach teach her how to do it and help her do it. Eventually, she will feel ready to try it alone.
Twelve-year-old Nick knows how taking small steps can lead to success. He used to be afraid to play his trumpet in front of people. But over time, he played in front of larger and larger groups. “First, I just played in front of my mom, then my family, then my classmates, then the whole school!” he said.
What to Do?
Sometimes the worst thing about feeling afraid is that you don’t know what to do. Here are the top 3 ways that kids who answered our survey try to help themselves feel better:
- Do something, like playing outside, listening to music, or watching TV.
- Talk to a parent.
- Talk to a friend.
Talking to a friend can help, especially if that person is supportive. About half the kids who took our survey said they’d been teased for being afraid. And even more — 75% — said they’ve sometimes said they weren’t afraid when they really were. So no teasing allowed. Encourage your friend today and maybe he or she will encourage you tomorrow!
Here’s some very supportive advice kids had for other kids:
If you get scared at night, Monique, 10, suggests listening to the radio when you’re falling asleep. And Naruto, also 10, recommends writing or drawing what you’re afraid of and then ripping it to pieces. Eight-year-old Jessica finds that it helps to take a deep breath when you’re scared.
Amanda, 10, thinks kids should talk with a parent or school counselor. “They will invent a way to help you get over it,” she said.
Bethany, 9, wants kids to hang tough, so we’ll let her have the last word: “Try, try again and never give up,” she said. “You’re not alone!”
Reviewed by: D’Arcy Lyness, PhD