Passing our fears/hang-ups on to our kids

Mary - posted on 08/20/2011 ( 22 moms have responded )

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At a recent story time at our local library, they did a bug theme. This meant that all the stories and songs were about bugs - The Very Hungry Caterpillar, There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, etc. Included in this was the song There's a Spider on My Leg. The presenter sang this song with the kids, and had a stuffed spider that she acted it out with.

Now, we've done this song a few places before, and my toddler loves it. However, I was shocked when two little kids, about 3 and 5, absolutely freaked out, crying hysterically, and tried to crawl up and wrap themselves practically around their mom's head. She had to take them out of the room. Later, after storytime was over, she told the other moms that she herself is terrified of spiders, and she was rather pissed at the volunteer for doing such a "spooky" thing with little kids. The rest of us just looked at her like she was nuts; our kids loved it. Of course, while none of us particularly like spiders, we don't freak out over them either.

It made me think about all of the little hang-ups we all have, and how they influence our kids. I have friends who are irrationally afraid of dogs or cats - and their kids are too. (They obviously don't hang out at my house!). Other kids are terrified of the water, clowns, thunderstorms, snakes...a whole odd assortment of things. Often times, it's not because of a prior bad experience (like a dog bite) but rather because a parent has in some way conveyed that the object in question is something to be feared.

So..do we have an obligation as parents to suppress these squeamishes in order to not negatively impact our child's perception of them?

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I do not necessarily agree that just because a child exhibits the same fears and reactions to certain things that their parents have that the parent passed the fear on through actions. I think many fears are "genetic" so to speak.

I am afraid of elevators--so much so that I have to physically be forced onto one. There is a back story, an experience I don't care to elaborate on because, frankly, I don't like to think about it.
My son knows I'm afraid of them, but he is not afraid of them himself. He knows that we ALWAYS take the stairs, but dad usually takes the elevator. He knows that some people have irrational fears, and that if he is afraid of something, he can tell me and we will help him face that fear or make efforts to avoid situations where it will be inflamed (depending on the fear--some fears must be faced (I am working on my elevator issues) others can be avoided without major consequence).

He has a fear of bees. I don't get it, yes, they sting, but it only hurts for a moment, and he's not allergic, so it's not going to kill him. I'm working with him on controlling his reaction, but he will probably always be afraid of bees--I know lots of people who are, and they are happy, productive, adults, so I don't think he needs to learn to love them.

Ez - posted on 08/20/2011

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I have personal experience with this. My own mother passed on her phobia of birds to me. It was obviously not her intention, but it happened. I can't be in any sort of confined space with one without wanting to drop to the ground. And forget going to one of those bird shows where they land on you, or feeding hot chips to the sea gulls. That is my worst nightmare.

I am very conscious of my reactions when I'm with my daughter though (which is hard sometimes because all I want to do is flap my arms at the evil thing and scream). I don't want her to have this issue, and so far she hasn't.

She has expressed a dislike or fear of some things without any input from me though. She's 2.5 now, but for as long as I can remember she has been terrified of the Postie. Completely irrational. Never had a bad experience. Just hates him. If we're outside playing, she runs screaming inside. Now I have no idea where that fear comes from.

Elfrieda - posted on 08/20/2011

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I think we do. That doesn't mean our kids won't be affected by them, but if we downplay our irrational fears or dislikes, at least they won't get them as bad as we have them.

If we look at people's reactions to thunderstorms, for instance:
My mom used to pull up a chair and watch them, and as a kid I loved to watch them with her. She told me it was God bowling.
Now I love storms as well.

My 1 year old son woke up scared and crying because the noisy thunder scared him, and the lightening was flashing all over his room. I took him downstairs and fed him cheerios while we watched the storm, and every time there was a big flash or roar, we clapped. Soon enough he was having a great time.

Now this is an example of "not-fear" being passed down, but I think it would have worked even if I was afraid of storms, just to pretend I wasn't and clap anyway.

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Jennifer - posted on 08/21/2011

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Yes, we do have an obligation to suppress these fears or at lest be sure they are not visible to the children! I have obsessive compulsive disorder which is driven by fear and anxiety. In order to raise a healthy child, I spent a LOT of time making sure I did not pass on my anxieties to my child. If I was afraid of something, I would talk to my spouse to see if my fear was irrational and then try my best to not let on that I was afraid of something. if for some reason I did express my fear, I would make sure my child understood that it was MY fear and just because I was afraid of it did not mean she needed to be. When she would interact with something that made me afraid, I would praise her for being so brave. A few times (with hissing cockroaches) I even faced MY fears and touched them!

Having OCD and fighting with Agoraphobia (part of my ocd which is a fear of leaving the house), has let me see how irrational fears can limit my quality of life. I do not want that for my daughter. I want her to be able to be confident and love life and the only way to do that is to help her find her own way in this life and not make her fearful of things that should not be feared.

Kellie - posted on 08/21/2011

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I would agree with Krista. Some fears just are, no matter what, and others are learned.

There's not much I'm afraid of, there's things I don't like, such as Spiders, ESPECIALLY when they appear on the INSIDE window while your driving..... but I can deal and not crash the car. I'm not keen on wasps because they can sting you multiple times and they HURT, but again I can deal.

I've had to be self sufficient my entire life, and I mean my ENTIRE life. So my personal challenge will be teaching her that it's good/safe/ok to rely on others, that it's healthy to depend on on others and not just yourself. So I guess the dependance on others would be my biggest fear and not transferring my fear onto/into her.

Krista - posted on 08/21/2011

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I think that kids do often look to their parents for guidance on how to react to things. How many times do toddlers fall, and then look at their parents first before reacting?

I think the same does go for fears.

Some are innate, of course, like Sherri said. But I also think that some fears are learned. If you're a toddler, and your parents are freaking terrified of spiders, then obviously you're going to figure that if THEY'RE scared of it, then it must really be scary. At that age, your parents know everything about everything. (Unlike when they hit adolescence, and decide that we don't know anything at all.)

Stifler's - posted on 08/20/2011

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I'm scared of chickens. You won't get me near one. i can't control my screaming when one comes near me especially if they flap or make noises. So good luck making me take my kids to see chickens. However my mum is scared of waterslides and I LOVE them even though she never took us on them.

Amie - posted on 08/20/2011

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I think we do. I myself am terrified of spiders. I used to be the one who would shriek, cry and generally freak the hell out if I even so much as saw one. Now I can handle squashing them, even though I visibly shake after disposing of them in the trash. Heebie jeebies - that's what I tell my kids the shaking is. "Mommy has the heebie jeebies". Then they all stand there and shake and laugh. No big deal.

I have one friend who is absolutely petrified of clowns. She controls herself when with her kids but I have seen her shriek in terror when they are not around. At least she's able to laugh at herself - after the clown has gone away.


If my kids are going to be scared of something I think there should be a reason behind it. I'm not even sure why I am scared of spiders. Heights I can understand (I'm scared of those too), I can visualize myself falling to my death. My friends laugh at me about it but I tell them I can be the ghost who says "I told you so" if we ever die because we fell. (Like from one of those stupid elevators with the glass floors and walls - like really) Even then though I maintain myself even without my kids (mostly because I don't want to scare a bunch of people) I turn myself away, keep my eyes on the doors and wait for it to open on the floor I need.

As of right now my kids are not really scared of anything, other than over active imaginations. The monsters under the bed syndrome - mine all went through/are going through it.

Dana - posted on 08/20/2011

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I think we have an obligation to squish those fears in front of our children. I'm horrified of spiders and have had to bite my tongue quite a bit around my son. He's starting to pick up on my fear though and now he'll say they're scary, which I'm frantically trying to change now. He's still interested in them, greatly but, he still keeps his distance. Which could be good I suppose.

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Sometimes you pass on your own oddities without even realizing it. I've had a lifelong problem with photos and artwork where the eyes are staring at you. I remember when i was 7, a family friend gave me some very cute kitten paintings but one stared at me constantly. It freaked me out. When I was a young teen and had my male idols on the wall, I deliberately chose pictures where I wasnt' being stared at. Even now, my artwork is all impressionist.



Now I never ever talk about this outloud. I don't mention it. However, when my son was looking at stuff to hang in his room, he told me too that he's afraid of the eyes watching him.



I don't know how I managed that. I truly wish I hadn't somehow done that but it happens.



I to this day don't know why he's so afraid of bugs. He wont' even squish a spider. He FREAKS if he thinks there's one in his room. I have no fear, I'll squash and remove as if it's utterly no big deal.



who knows!

Lacye - posted on 08/20/2011

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I am scared of small spaces and heights. Luckily, my daughter has never been in one of those situations with me but once or twice and I managed to keep my cool.

My husband on the other hand is another story. He is terrified of any flying stinging insects. He acts like a fool whenever he sees one. I am worried that he will pass that on to my baby girl.

Mary - posted on 08/20/2011

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Lindsey, I applaud your efforts! It is hard to not react in an over-the-top manner when we are confronted with something that we fear, particularly when we are caught off-guard. That, admittedly, is one of the (few) downsides to cat ownership - those precious little "presents"!

I think there is a crucial difference between showing overt fear in the face of something that warrants it (like a car that suddenly jumps the curb as you are walking on the sidewalk), and something a little less traumatic - like a random cricket that lands on you arm at a picnic, or finding a dead bird on your sidewalk. Our kids really do take their cues from us - both verbal and non-verbal.

Even at 2 1/2, my girl can tell, without my saying a word, if I am happy, angry, sad, or sick. I'm not perfect, but I do try hard to control the impulse to overreact to things that we encounter when we are out and about.

Lindsey - posted on 08/20/2011

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Mary, I absolutely agree with your last post. Fear is a natural emotion, and we should encourage our children to express it and talk about the things that frighten them.

But we should try not to allow our children to see their parents react fearfully to things that really don't merit that level of fear. Before my son was born, if I saw a mouse in my house I would start to cry and panic and would have to call my husband or a neighbour to get rid of it for me. But now that my son is here, I realize that that type of reaction is only going to reinforce for him that mice are nasty, evil creatures (which certainly isn't true). So now, if I spot one I try to remain calm and shoo it out the back door. It's not always easy mind you. One morning I was making breakfast and came back into the living room for my little guy, and discovered that my cat had given him a little gift to play with... a dead vole. It took every ounce of strength I had NOT to break down. I calmly took the vole away from him, tossed it in the garbage, and then very quickly (but still calmly) took him upstairs and threw him in the bathtub. While he was a little confused about the change in routine (bathtime first thing in the morning?), he wasn't afraid at all.

Eventually he will develop his own fears and we will talk him through those. I'm sure he will work through some, and some will inevitably stay with him. But those will be his fears. And I hope that because I've chosen to be brave and stay calm for his sake, he won't have to deal with all of mine.

Mary - posted on 08/20/2011

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Amber, you're right in that we do need to allow our children to feel secure in expressing their fears, and not minimize them or make them feel ashamed about them. We all have things we are afraid of.

My issue is more about transferring your own fears, prejudices, or discomforts on to a child, without really allowing them to make up their own minds about something. For example, I really don't like any form of seafood, but that doesn't mean I carry on about how awful it is if we are out, and someone offers me shrimp cocktail. I politely decline, but I do encourage my child to try it - cause hey - she might actually enjoy it. However, if I were to make a face, and say "Ugh, no thanks - that's disgusting!", the chances of her even trying it are just about nil.

And yeah, Heather - bug-catching is a huge hit in my household. I have spent entirely too much time this summer playing with worms, caterpillars, roly-polies, and lightening bugs. As well, we in the mid Atlantic part of the states have been inundated with stink bugs of late, and one of my toddler's favorite pastimes is to spot them, and scream for the dogs to "Get, it Charlie, eat it!". Those bugs have no natural predators here, except for Molly and the dogs!

Lady Heather - posted on 08/20/2011

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I'm afraid of flying, but no way in hell would I let my kid see that. It's irrational and I don't want her thinking that's normal. It's been good for me because I now don't have crazy freak outs. I just focus on the kid.

I don't understand the bug thing. They're tiny. Even the big ones are tiny. You can squash them. Why are they scary? Ha. We go on bug hunts pretty much everyday at our house.

My daughter is afraid of cat hair. Like if there's a clump of it on the floor. I have no idea where that came from. I guess not all fears are learned.

Amber - posted on 08/20/2011

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I also think it's our responsibility to attempt to conquer our fears so that our children don't inherit them...but people who are deathly afraid may have a hard time with it.

I've always attempted to face my fears head on and I try to instill that in my child. But he's still afraid of heights...a fear neither his father nor I have. Sometimes, it just is what it is.
We try to encourage him and expose him to safe heights. Looking out tall windows, climbing to the top of the play tower, etc. Slowly, he's learning that heights aren't so bad and can be fun.

I think pretending you aren't afraid isn't necessarily a good thing, then your child might feel that they are never allowed to be scared. But showing them that you can be afraid and still move forward and face it head on, that's a lesson that I personally value.

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Parents are the number #1 role model for our children. So if a parent is modeling extreme fear to spiders, or 'X' object, then yes, that fear is going to be transfered. I also have a fear of spiders, but I think it's more out of shock when I see a HUGE one. Nothing else in the world bothers me! Little spiders, I can kill them. My son has witnessed this, and I think when he was younger he would model my fear. Then I started to tell him, "I'm not afraid anymore, let;s kill the spider" I sucked up my fear and trmebling, and stomped a big one! I still hate spiders! But I don't want my son to mimic my fear.

Side story about spiders. 2 weeks ago in my classroom, early, 6:45 am I'm just getting my computer turned on and sitting down to eat breakfast. This HUGE dark black spider scuttle near my feet under the desk and I saw him out of the corner of my eye. I screamed "like a girl" and called the biology teacher down the hall to kill it! Instead, he caputured it in a jar and became oh-so fascinated by it. THEN, he shared the story with our FRESHMAN students! Talk about embarrassment!

Lindsey - posted on 08/20/2011

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My son, not unlike other children, is always looking to me and my husband as a way of gauging situations and determining whether something is safe and fun, or dangerous and scary. For my husband, this isn't a big deal, as there isn't too much that frightens him. For me, it's a different story altogether... in a lot of respects, "fear" is my middle name. Wasps (or even bumblebees), thunderstorms, mice, bumps in the night... these all used to absolutely terrify me. I've been working on it since my son was born, realizing that if I showed him how scared I was, he would pick up on my fears and would soon be running like a crazy person through the yard trying to dodge a bumblebee (me), or hiding under the covers when a lawn chair blows over in the wind on a stormy night (again, me). I've found that simply by pretending that these things don't bother me, my fear level isn't nearly as high as it used to be. I don't want my son to grow up afraid of his own shadow (or a harmless mouse), so I always try to be brave and not allow him to know how scared I really am, and my husband and I are always exposing our son to new people, places and things. So far it appears to be working... he seems to be absolutely fearless, which, of course terrifies me :)

Mary - posted on 08/20/2011

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Elfrieda, I absolutely agree. I'm finding that a lot of how our kids perceive things is in how we present them.

This was made very apparent to me this summer when I took my 2 1/2 y/o to see fireworks. I knew taking her could be iffy, but a few days ahead of time, I started talking to her about going to see them. I talked about how fun and pretty they would be. I talked about the loud "booms" and how it would shake our whole bodies. I was very careful to describe them in accurate, but fun and positive way. I never suggested that it would be scary, or said anything negative about them. Now, I did have a plan for an "escape" if it turned out that she was overwhelmed or frightened, but I never talked to her about that possibility. I concentrated only on the fun, exciting aspects of it.

We went with a few other families, all of whom had older kids. Almost every other mom, including my own sister, was worried about how she would do. I really wasn't - and I think that expectation, and my own lack of anxiety about her reaction served me well. She freakin loved them!. She danced, clapped, yelled with glee, and cheered through the entire thing. In fact, she did better than a few of the over-5 crowd we were with. I don't think it's that she's exceptionally brave or fearless, but rather that I both presented it positively ahead of time, and never in any way lead her to expect to be scared.

I've found the same thing to be true with amusement park rides, swimming, thunderstorms, and bugs. In my house, catching bugs is a game (aided in part by 2 nutty dogs that love to eat them!). We don't run screaming from bees, spiders, flies, or any other creepy-crawly; we get excited to see who can "catch" it first. I was never all too big on bugs before mommy-hood, but I had this "I'll be damned if I raise my kid to jump up on a chair and scream with terror" mentality that made me get over my own squeamishness about them.

[deleted account]

i think that parents have an obligation to try, but that realistically if a person has is terrified of something they will find it very hard to suppress that.

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