A recent British study has found that when a child shows an attitude toward a perceived fear, other children will be influenced by the anticipated danger.
Fear can be contagious.
We have probably all witnessed the subtle change in a room when someone a little more dramatic enters the conversation, her eyes widened and gestures full as she recounts an experience that left her feeling more anxious than it might have for another person.
The temperature in the whole room changes, everyone’s neurotransmitters a little more on edge about the subject than it was before — that is, until someone is able to assuage their fears with her own, different experience. And a sense of calm visibly falls on the group.
A British study, published in December in the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy, shows the same phenomenon happens with children.
Researchers found that the attitude toward a perceived fear, an animal, in one child aged 7-10 years old influenced the attitude toward the same perceived fear in his or her same-aged friend.
There is a difference between boys and girls. Boys appeared to amp up the fear response in one another, whereas discussion among girls tended to decrease fear beliefs.
Another interesting finding is that these results appeared to hold true no matter a child’s particular proneness to anxiety.
Researchers hope the study will help professionals who treat child anxiety disorders, providing evidence that phobias have more than a genetic basis — that fear is also a learned behavior — and perhaps pointing the way toward group therapy.
While this study is specific to childhood peers, I think it’s an important reminder that our beliefs as parents influence our children, too — for better or worse. We are social beings, and while the nature-nurture debate continues, it’s common sense that even though DNA does obviously play a role in our children’s development, so does the environment. The debate really just boils down to how much nature vs nurture there is for any given trait.
I would hope that the professionals looking at this study as evidence for group therapy for anxious children would also apply it toward family groups. And I think, as parents, we can take this study as further evidence that we can play a huge part in developing our children’s fear responses — whether healthy or not.
I grew up with a fear of snakes and spiders. I would scream and run away to the farthest corner of my parents’ property should either one appear in my path. It was quite problematic given I lived on a farm.
When I had children, I resolved to not inadvertently teach my children my fears through my responses. I wanted to take the “nurture” out of the phobia equation, meaning I wanted their environmental influence to be positive, not merely reactive of my knee-jerk response. So I acted like it didn’t bother me when one of my children brought me a snake or a spider to see, even if inside I was cringing. I now have three nature-lovers without a fear in the world of spiders or snakes. In fact, one of them now begs me to get her a pet snake. I just might.
The thing is — I don’t know when it happened exactly — but I no longer carry those fears with me. I view spiders with as much curiosity as my children, eagerly help my daughter create a snake oasis in our garden, and even rescued a garter snake from the mower.
Our children not only learn fears from one another, as is the premise of this new study, but also from their parents, too — just as they learn emotional responses to any other situation — as anxious children has already established. As we are social beings, it stands to reason that learned responses are a two-way street, and our children — guided by our intentional parenting responses — can change our own fear beliefs.