Teaching Kids How to Relate to Their Fears

How do we develop kids' capacity to face their fears?

I stood halfway down the steps into the bunker, feeling the cold underground air at my back meet the sunny, warm air in front of me. The difference was amazing - a beautiful coastal California hillside in front, and the dark, spooky World War II bunker underneath it, built for an attack that never came. On the steps in front of me was a line of brave but nervous looking students who had volunteered to explore the bunker. I knew this experience could be powerful for them and was trying to figure out how to prime them for it.

The first student arrived, giggles fading from his face as he peered behind me at the stairs leading into the dark bunker. "What are you feeling?" I asked, not quite sure what else to say. "Um - scared! Is it safe in there?" I assured him it was totally safe - and then it popped into my head to ask him to feel the fear he had right now, and then watch to see when it passed. It might come and go a few times in the next hour. He listened to my request silently, looked tense and walked nervously down the stairs. Then the next student appeared, and a little more confidently, I asked her to feel her fear all the way, and then feel it go away. Coming and going.

A few minutes later there were about 10 students in a circle on the floor in the bunker, an air shaft providing very dim illumination. They had already been through a few cycles of fear. That stomach-contracting feeling of going into the bunker. Then the sigh of relief at seeing friends inside and realizing there was nothing too scary. Then the sound and sight of a bat inside, and instantly the stomach-clenching fear was back in full force. Then, recognizing that the bat was far more scared than they, the relaxation again.

Inside the bunker, we held a ceremony of sorts to talk about our fears. In this charged atmosphere, each student wrote one fear on a card, and ventured to speak it aloud to their peers around them. Once spoken, it went into a small metal tray with a candle in it, burning up before our eyes.

An hour later the students burst out of the bunker, relishing the fresh air and blindingly bright sun that had been just a few feet above them the whole time. The exercise, as we discussed later, was not about eliminating fears. Not a reasonable or even desirable goal - our fears are useful inputs. It's about how we relate to them. The key, I think, is to recognize that they come and go. One minute you're quaking in your boots, the next minute relaxed. Like hunger arriving and passing when we eat, or fatigue, or excitement, we all know what it feels like to have an overwhelming feeling come and go.

If you know it's transitory, you can deal with it differently. Is this a fear that I need to pay attention to? Or can I notice it and continue on, knowing that it will pass? Sometimes we want them to obey their fears - jumping off that boulder may not be wise - and sometimes we hope they will "catch and release" them, feeling the tightness in their stomach before the SAT test and then relaxing in the knowledge that it will soon pass.

There's one other piece at play: we know that when we face a fear in one setting in our lives, we come out of the experience fired up to face other fears. Author Tim Ferriss calls this "Fear-Setting" and describes it as his "favorite thought exercise," for the power it gives him to face fears in other domains of his life. It's a powerful psychological effect. What a gift to our kids to offer them the ability to grapple with their fears head-on, listening to them, defining them, and deciding how they want to act from a place of awareness rather than reaction.