Why Are Childhood Fears So Specific and Weird?

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Photo: Alastair Pollock Photography

“Is she afraid of the dark?” is a question lots of people have asked me over the course of my daughter’s 2.5 years on the planet.

And so far, my answer has always been the same: “No.”

In fact, as far as I can tell, she doesn’t have very many gut-response fears at all: Fear doesn’t seem to come naturally to her in any way. We’ve taught her to be cautious of falling off of chairs or of running too fast, of course, and she dutifully avoids touching scissors or knives, simply because I’ve told her that they’re dangerous. But I have yet to see much evidence of anything I would call fear in her.

Which isn’t to say that I’ve seen none at all. Just a few months ago, my husband and I took her to an aquarium to see an octopus, an animal which she had recently become enamored with. The “optopus” had sadly died the previous week, but our daughter tore through the place, touching jellyfish and rays and crabs, gawking at the “dragon” (lizard) exhibit.

As we turned the corner to what we thought was the exit, we came to the aquarium’s prized exhibit. Walking down the long, increasingly dark hallway felt like wandering into a movie theater in the middle of a bright morning. Suddenly, there were no other people around, and the three of us were bathed in the cool, romantic blue light of a gigantic tank that ran from floor to ceiling. Around us, we could hear the calming, atmospheric sounds of the sea.

Most of the tank was above us, and my daughter was up much higher than I was, her 6.5-foot-tall father carrying her. Out of the murky depths, suddenly, silently and swiftly, swam a large shark (a sand tiger shark, I learned later), smoothly sailing right on past us.

My daughter, the fearless companion of all my days and nights, took one look at it and said something I have heard her say many times before, usually at the dinner table: “All done. All done. All done!”

The words got more declarative with every utterance and she turned her head away from the tank. We laughed a bit, tried to draw her attention back to the wonder of the sharks. Usually if she is confronted with an unknown, you can get her interested by seeming interested yourself. Not this time. She put a finger into her mouth and looked up at the ceiling as if suddenly something interesting had appeared up there. “All done,” she said quietly. We moved on.

Only later did I sit down and consider her reaction, tears of laughter welling up in my eyes as I thought of that squeaky but strong little voice: She was afraid. She didn’t say she was afraid; that didn’t really cross her mind. She just decided to let us know she had concluded her viewing of the sharks and was ready to move on to the next exhibit. But there was no doubt in my mind: She was afraid.

How we learn fear is a pretty complicated and fascinating topic, and child psychologist and author of Unselfie: How Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, Dr. Michele Borba, says that “learn” is the key word. “Fear doesn’t come naturally,” she says. “We encounter things that hurt us — a sting or something hot, and we become conditioned to avoid that in the future.”

But other fears are less direct, in that it’s not simply a matter of harm. A fear of sharks makes sense: They’re pretty ugly-looking, on a very visceral, basic level. Repeat visits to the aquarium have lessened her fear, now that she understands the tank concept, but she is still not totally square with sharks: She’s seen enough of them, still. She can tolerate them, but she’s not excited for the encounter.

But what about … spiders? Recently, while watching a YouTube video of the “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” my daugther, in response to me saying “how cute” the spider was, said, “I don’t like spiders.” “What?!” I said, surprised because she DOES like spiders, just as she likes all bugs. “They’re too scary,” she said, though she didn’t look scared at all.

Dr. Borba says that many “acquired” fears like this, the ones where there is no danger and no visceral, gut-level reaction from the child, are simply learned from interactions with others. “It can be one parent or kid who says, ‘spider are gross,’ and there you go — your child suddenly says they don’t like spiders.”

This goes a long way toward explaining why ugly things like bugs, which aren’t in and of themselves harmful in any way, get a bad rap. We don’t like them because other people don’t like them, and we pass our dislike on to others.

So wait, then, I ask myself: If no one ever told my kid she should be afraid of spiders or cockroaches, would she ever get that fear on her own? Probably not, says Dr. Borba.

“Fear is a useful and important emotion,” she says, and it’s one that children are only just becoming aware of around the age of 2, with most fears peaking around the age of 4 or 5.

What about the dark? “Children can come to fear the dark on their own,” she says, noting that “you can’t see in the dark, which is somewhat disorienting for everyone,” and is especially so for young children, partly because they are just learning to distinguish between reality and imagination.

It might be an uphill battle to get my daughter to retain her current fearlessness when it comes to creepy crawlers, but it’s not a lost cause, Borba says. “You’re the closest person to your child, so if you consistently show her that you’re not afraid, and that you think being in the dark or around bugs is cool or simply no big deal, that will go a long way toward conditioning her not to be scared.”

Bravery, she says, can be taught, just the same way that being laid-back about encountering ants can be. So for us, “no biggie” rules the day.

Yesterday, in the car driving home, I called to Zelda in the backseat: “You like spiders, right?” “No!” she laughed, before saying, “I like tiny spiders,” which I smiled at: progress. “But I no like bridges.” She always gets the last word.