Where Do Childhood Fears Come From?

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Aug 29, 2016

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The things that go bump in the night have long plagued children from the shadowy corners of their minds. While most of us grow out of our childhood fears, feeling scared is a very necessary human emotion that we’ll experience off and on our entire lives.

But where do childhood fears come from? What creates the monster under the bed? What sends us into hiding before a trip to the dentist?

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The first thing to know about fear in children, is that it is both innate and learned. Everyone is born with a heightened threat perception and the capacity to fear, even if actual fear of the perceived threat is a learned response. Interestingly, regardless of culture, all babies seem predisposed to be wary of certain things, namely spiders and snakes.

One study (among many similar iterations) found 5-month-olds look longer at drawings of snakes and spiders than they look at scrambled versions of the same depictions. (Neutral images, like flowers, got the same level of attention whether or not the drawings were scrambled.) The long-standing theory behind this is that spiders and snakes – among the most poisonous animals on the planet – have long been a threat to humans, who, as a result, evolved the ability to readily identify these animals as a survival mechanism.

Fear, of course, followed naturally and the emotion was handed down through generations of human history socially, even as the perception response was handed down physiologically. Because one of the first modern insights in the study of fear is perhaps the clearest: Fear can be learned.

In 1920, long before ethics influenced scientific experimentation, American psychologist John B. Watson carried out an experiment now known as the Little Albert experiment. In it, he proved a 9-month-old baby boy could be conditioned to fear a white rat by learning to associate it with a loud, startling noise. That fear was then seen to extend to other white, furry animals and even a fur coat.

There were many problems with the experiment outside of its horribly abusive methods, but the basic finding has been backed up over decades of subsequent (and more ethical) exploration. We now know that, as in the case of Little Albert, kids can learn fear through direct experience, for instance, after touching a hot surface a child could develop a fear of fire.

Kids can also learn fear through observing others’ (typically parents’) reactions; a recent study found a strong correlation between children’s fear of needles and their parents’ reactions during their infant immunization. They can even learn fear by watching others’ interactions – say in the case of a friendly dog chasing after another child.

But anyone who has made it through the toddler and preschool years knows that childhood fears can often seem as organic as they are mystifying. Yet they probably have a cause that parents may or may not be able to observe.

Before the age of three, children are experiencing the world at an almost exponential rate, and fear is a common reaction to experiences that don’t make sense or appear threatening. At this age, most children have concrete fears – that is, fears of things that directly affect them in the moment of experiencing, like a barking dog, or a thunderstorm.

But like Little Albert, they may make associations that confound adults. For instance, what appears to be a sudden aversion to yellow crayons could actually be their reaction to hearing a loud noise while colouring, or linking the colour with a related bad experience, like a bee sting.

Toddlers are still developing object permanence, and so sometimes their fear stems from their nascent ability to understand that a beloved object (a parent, a toy) continues to exist outside of their sight (as when the lights are switched off). These kinds of fears are all developmentally appropriate.

  Read more about object permanence on The Swaddle.

As children grow, their fears evolve, too. In pre-schoolers and young children, fears tend to take an abrupt shift to the imaginary or intangible – the monster under the bed, a wicked witch, death. (These are just examples; culture plays a strong role in what, exactly, kids fear, too. After all, a child growing up in Delhi isn’t going to fear the Loch Ness Monster.)

This shift is developmentally appropriate, too; at this age, a child’s imagination is firing and pretend play is a key part of their development. That bleeds over onto their fears, which become increasingly ‘unreal’ or hypothetical. These tend to peak around age 7 to 9, when kids’ cognitive development leads them to start considering counterfactuals (e.g. Do ghosts really not exist?).

Interestingly, kids know this; between ages 3 and 7, kids increasingly become aware of fear as something that exists in the mind and that is experienced differently by different people. This burgeoning awareness, however, doesn’t mean they are able to rationalise their fear away.

Particularly for children around 3 and 4, the study’s authors suggest it’s better to reframe the object of fear as a benign force (for example, the monster under the bed just wants to play), rather than focus on the fact that it’s not actually there. Not all experts agree with this approach, however. Some say a reality check is exactly what is needed, one that helps children differentiate between actual danger and the “false alarms” of their own mind.

Our experience of fear takes a sharp turn in puberty and adolescence. The preteen and/or teen brain is particularly attuned to dopamine, a neurotransmitter that gets released in response to, among other stimuli, thrilling experiences. Preteens and teens have more dopamine flooding their body at this age than at any other point in life, and their developing brains are wired to keep chasing that high.

Suddenly, fear becomes fun.

This natural change in brain chemistry (which eventually evens out as other parts of the brain mature) is why teens are known for reckless behaviour – and why ‘scaring’ them about the consequences doesn’t really work. So, the next time your teenager wants to watch a horror movie, consider that it might be less worrisome than an alternative way of maintaining his or her heightened dopamine levels.

This article is part of a series on fear in childhood. Read part two and part three here to learn what parents do wrong and what they can do right when responding to kids’ fears.

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Written By The Swaddle Team

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