Sunday, October 5, 2008

Fear and Anxiety

We are born with fear and its cousin anxiety, hardwired into us (see Fear and Anxiety book list). There at the center of our brain lurks the amygdala, an evolved center for processing threatening situations. Like almost everything in life, fear is a continuum, dependent on some golden mean. No sense of fear and we are quickly and effectively eliminated from the gene pool. Too much fear and we become incapacitated. The ability to recognize a dangerous situation and respond appropriately is a fine balance and dependent on a well calibrated amygdala.

Psychologists and neuroscientist debate whether fear is an innate emotion. For example, it is argued that fear of snakes is an innate emotion and that, of course, makes a fairly attractive evolutionary narrative. The evidence, however, suggests that young children are not necessarily innately fearful of snakes per se, but rather, are innately alert to them. Just as our eye and brain are attuned to sensing motion over stasis, so we appear to be oriented towards detecting long thin slithering things. The fear appears to be developed later, as a learned response.

For clarity, it is perhaps useful to distinguish fear and anxiety. Both of them have medical definitions, but I am using more of the vernacular where anxiety is interpreted as a milder, lesser form of fear and where the terms are often meant to make the distinction of presence - we fear something that is happening whereas we are anxious about something in anticipation of it occurring.

What do children fear? Nothing and many things. As a parent you are always stepping in to caution them about something (No, I don't think it's a good idea for you to offer that snarling stray dog your sandwich) while simultaneously encouraging them to do something which to them must seem unhinged (You'll love it in that deep, cold ocean full of unseen things). Per, the most common anxieties in the general population (including adults) are: Acrophobia (fear of heights), claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces), nyctophobia (fear of the dark), ophidiophobia (fear of snakes), arachnophobia (fear of spiders), trypanopobia (fear of needles/injections), astraphobia (fear of thunder and lightening), nosophobia (fear of having a disease), mysophobia (fear of germs), triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number thirteen).

I am not sure how prevalent the last three are among children. In fact, I would guess that there are some better candidates instead of those three: fear of strangers (xenophobia), fear of the water (hydrophobia), fear of dogs (cynophobia), fear of school (didaskaleinophobia), fear of public speaking (glossophobia) and fear of tests (testophobia), would all be candidates. Throw in separation anxiety and fear of monsters under the bed and you probably have a reasonably complete list of most of the anxieties that afflict a child at one time or another as they grow.

As adults, we learn to manage and control our environment so much better than a child can ever do that it is hard to recapture the raw powerlessness and vulnerability that a child experiences. It is interesting to think back to the fears that you had as a child. I don't recall any debilitating fears but do distinctly remember a period where I had a very healthy respect for snakes. I don't think I ever had a fear of public speaking, but certainly an aversion to it. Was there a fear of the dark in my youngest days; I suppose there was because I do recall night lights about.

Sometimes fears of childhood carry over into adulthood and lay about just waiting to be rediscovered. After dating Sally for a couple or three years, we married and then a couple of years later, we took a vacation in Sweden where I had lived for a period as a child. After visiting Stockholm, we flew to Gotland, a large island off the southeast coast, the capital of which is a Middle Ages, Hanseatic League city, Visby. During our stay, we made an excursion to the middle of the island to visit Torsburgen, a massive walled prehistoric settlement. It is on a raised area of land and in the center of the enclosure the parks people have erected a structure similar to a fire watch tower. You can climb five or six alternating runged ladders (like on a naval ship) to get to the top (about sixty feet up) from which vantage point you can see for miles around: beautiful fields of golden wheat, green grass, red poppies and bright yellow rapeseed.

It was a gorgeous summer day as can only be experienced in those northern climes: sunny enough to warm you but with the air cool and fresh. A blue vaulting sky, powder puffed with clouds. This was going to be a stunning vista. When we arrived at the tower, Sally said she was tired from the hiking and would rest while I went up. I just knew she would kick herself if she missed this view and encouraged, cajoled, and finally herded her to the top. Only on arriving there, with her grasping hold tightly to the railings, did I discover that, after all these years, "I'm afraid of heights." Well, it was a stunning view, but I am not sure she appreciated it. It took a long time to get down. And I have yet to live it down.

Fear is not easily moderated by logic or facts. Sally, despite a fear of heights, is perfectly fine flying on planes as long as she doesn't look down. One time, perhaps when I was six, seven or eight, I was visiting my grandparents who lived on a lake up in northeastern Oklahoma. Their "cabin" fronted a creek on one side and the lake on another. As was our habit on sunny days, one afternoon, my grandmother brought a chair down the hill to watch over me while I went swimming. I was happily splashing about when of a sudden, I saw what looked like a snake's head in the water not more than twenty feet from me. As if in a cartoon, I have the impression of my rising from the water, running along the surface, hitting the shore and not stopping till I had raced all the way up the hill to the cabin.

My grandmother called to me, "Sakes alive, what has got into you." I explained about the snake. She peered out over the lake. 'That's not a snake, it's a leaf." We discussed this for some time. She argued that it was not moving therefore must not be a snake. I imagined it to be tired or wounded. Somehow she talked me into re-entering the lake, and of all things, swimming back out towards it to investigate. I got within fifteen feet, remained convinced that it was a snake, and set new records returning to shore. Michael Phelps had nothing on me. We repeated this cycle two or three times and I probably got within six feet of whatever it was before finally calling it quits. Logically I accept my grandmother's argument - probably a leaf but if a snake, dead. Simultaneously, I remain viscerally convinced it was a snake. Possibly one just playing possum to lure me in.

Paradoxically, fear can be a source of entertainment for others and occasionally for ourselves. In hindsight I am able to laugh about the snake in the water just as my grandmother did at the time. It took a while for me to come around to that perspective though. When we go camping with the boy scouts there is always someone afraid of spiders or scorpions and they become the source of much unsympathetic commentary and entertainment for their fellow scouts who are blithely imperceptive of their own insensitivity. Not all fears are groundless. We have one scout who has had past run-ins with skunks who seem to seek him out. His trepidation about the skunk population at any new camp site is always good for extended ribbing which he good naturedly partakes in - all the while keeping an eye peeled for any local representatives of the polecat population coming to seek an audience.

For most children, fears and anxieties prove to be passing phases. They adapt and adjust. While respectful of snakes, I no longer fear them to the same extent. My last encounter with one that made my adrenalin flow was some years later. In college, I took the summer between junior and senior year to travel around Europe, mostly in Germany where I was practicing my German to pass a fluency test when I returned (and on which my graduation depended) but towards the end I made my way down to Greece and ultimately to the island of Rhodes. Travelling around the island on my own on a motorcycle was a wonderful experience. At one point, I stopped by the ruins of an ancient Greek town perched along a ridge running down the center of the island. After poking around among the ancient stone paths, foundations and walls, I came to the edge of the settlement, looking out across the small peasant farms that dotted the valley in front of me. I stood perfectly still, absorbing the sun, soaking up the view and breathing deeply the pine scented air and the smell of the summer dried shrubbery around me.

It was at that moment of solitude and deep quiet that I became aware of a rustling sound. Looking down I saw, not more than a yard in front of me, a four foot black snake slithering along, as unaware of me as I had been of him. The jolt of adrenalin nearly rocketed me up the hillside but I managed to stay rooted in place and the snake passed into the undergrowth. Later at a taverna, I met a very old Greek gentlemen who had spent some years in Chicago in the 1920's and 30's as a laborer before returning to his home island. He still had some basic English after all those many years and I related my story of the close encounter with the snake. I asked him if the snakes on the island were poisonous. He was very definitive. "No! No poisonous snakes." But then less reassuringly he added "Some people say they are but I say no."

If your child is wrestling with some fear or anxiety, how as a parent can you use books to help them? Obviously discussion is a starting point. It is a delicate decision about how to best approach some anxiety that is becoming discombobulating. On the one hand, by grasping the nettle, you risk making too much of the anxiety and exacerbate the situation. Left unaddressed and you risk it festering into something incapacitating.

One useful approach is to look at any negative situation with which a child is dealing and look for books that deal with the antidote to that situation, then find books that portray the proximate issue in a positive light and finally to find books that deal with the specific issue. In general, it is preferable to find books in that order.

So if the situation is fear, then the action is to find books that profile courage (the antidote to fear). If the proximate issue is to do with water, then find books that highlight the positive aspects of sailing, deep sea diving, ocean creatures, etc., i.e. books that cast a positive light on water. And if the specific issue is a fear of the ocean, find books that feature some protagonist that has that fear and overcomes it. It is usually best to work through books in that order: antidote books, proximate issue and then the specific issue.

This book list focuses on books related to specific issues. Courage will be treated as a separate book list as will books about proximate topics like flying (see Pigeon Post essay of August 24, 2008, Flying), the ocean, the dark, starting school, (see Pigeon Post essay of August 3, 2008, First Day of School), etc. Specific issue books frequently skirt awfully close to being overly simplistic and didactic. We have, in general, tried to find those books that tell an interesting story that happens to encompass the particular fear.

Collected in this book list are stories in which the protagonist suffers and overcomes some specific fear, or in which some element of the plot hinges upon someone's fear of something. These are books in which a child can see someone else experiencing and dealing with the issue with which they are wrestling. Specific fears that are addressed include starting school, nightmares, the dark, monsters, separation, etc.

Let us know what books might have worked for you and your child in helping them overcome some anxiety or fear.

Picture Books

Bedtime for Frances by Russell Hoban and illistrated by Garth Williams Highly Recommended

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak Highly Recommended

Stellaluna by Janell Cannon Highly Recommended

Switch On The Night by Ray Bradbury and illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon Recommended

Ghost's Hour, Spook's Hour by Eve Bunting and illustrated by Donald Carrick Recommended

Carl Goes to Daycare by Alexandra Day Recommended

Storm in the Night by Mary Stolz and illustrated by Pat Cummings Recommended

Can't You Sleep, Little Bear? by Martin Waddell and illustrated by Barbara Firth Recommended

Owl Babies by Martin Waddell and illustrated by Patrick Benson Recommended

The Bus Ride by William Miller and illustrated by John Ward Recommended

Oh My Baby, Little One by Kathi Appelt and illustrated by Jane Dyer Suggested

Monster Brother by Mary Jane Auch Suggested

Brave Little Monster by Ken Baker and illustrated by Geoffrey Hayes Suggested

Franklin in the Dark by Paulette Bourgeois and illustrated by Brenda Clark Suggested

Franklin and the Thunderstorm by Paulette Bourgeois and illustrated by Brenda Clark Suggested

Go Away, Big Green Monster! by Ed Emberley Suggested

The Very Noisy Night by Diana Hendry and illustrated by Jane Chapman Suggested

There's a Nightmare in My Closet by Mercer Mayer Suggested

The Owl Who Was Afraid Of The Dark by Jill Tomlinson and illustrated by Paul Howard Suggested

Will You Come Back for Me? by Ann Tompert and illustrated by Robin Kramer Suggested

Independent Reader

I'll Protect You from the Jungle Beasts by Martha G. Alexander Recommended

My Mama Says There Aren't Any Zombies, Ghosts, Vampires, Creatures, Demons, Monsters, Fiends, Goblins or Things by Judith Viorst and illustrated by Kay Chorao Recommended

Alexander, Who's Not (Do You Hear Me? I Mean It!) Going to Move by Judith Viorst and illustrated by Robin Preiss-Glasser Recommended

Ira Sleeps over by Bernard Waber Recommended

Math Curse by Jon Scieszka and illustrated by Lane Smith Recommended

Train to Somewhere by Eve Bunting and illustrated by Ronald Himler Recommended

Outfoxing Fear by Kathleen Ragan Recommended

The Berenstain Bears and the Bad Dream by Stan Berenstain and Jan Berenstain Suggested

The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers by Stan Berenstain and Jan Berenstain Suggested

The Berenstain Bears Get Stage Fright by Stan Berenstain and Jan Berenstain Suggested

Bears in the Night by Stan Berenstain and Jan Berenstain Suggested

The Berenstain Bears in the Dark by Stan Berenstain and Jan Berenstain Suggested

Who's Afraid of the Dark? by Crosby Newell Bonsall Suggested

Arthur Lost and Found by Marc Tolon Brown Suggested

Simon's Book by Henrik Drescher Suggested

The Patch by Justina Chen Headley and illustrated by Mitch Vane Suggested

Pinky and Rex Go to Camp by James Howe and illustrated by Melissa Sweet Suggested

Froggy Learns to Swim by Jonathan London and illustrated by Frank Remkiewicz Suggested

Mrs. Watson Wants Your Teeth by Alison McGhee and illustrated by Harry Bliss Suggested

Franklin and the Thunderstorm by Paulette Bourgeois and illustrated by Brenda Clark Suggested

Young Adult

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee Highly Recommended

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