Living with fear, and facing it down.

*WARNING! Some of the links in this post are not for the faint hearted and may cause distress*

Fear. It’s such a difficult subject to talk about. Not only because it’s hard to face your fears, but also because it’s different for everyone. Each person has their own comfort zones and levels that they are willing to go beyond, each person has their own way of dealing with their fear. Some find taking a deep breath helps (particularly useful just before performing or taking an exam), others take solace in some kind of mantra (meditation in your pocket), lucky charms, diversions, there are numerous coping methods for whatever ails you.

Now, I have a small secret to share with you. Ready? Come closer…..I’m scared all the damn time. It’s tiny fears that afflict me, how much money do I have (not much!), he’s running late is Tom going to get home safe, am I failure as a mother because Beth won’t eat/talk/walk/do ANYTHING I ask her to do, will I forget the form moves, if I let the kids just run around are they going to get hurt, will my ideas work, will I forget the certificates and badges (yes, many times, to be reclaimed at the last minute), am I lost, is that noise just the house settling or is someone in here with me, I’m so tired if I shut the doors will I hear Beth in the night. As you can see the list goes on and on. This inner monologue of fears and anxieties carries on throughout the day and I can more or less dismiss them immediately by creating extensive lists, researching where I’m going exhaustively or recognising the voice of my inner drama queen (heads up she’s a bit of a diva). All is fine, that is until the day ends and it starts to get dark. For you see ladies and gentlemen I suffer from Nyctophobia, which is a fancy way of saying scared of monsters under the bed. When it comes to the dark I curse my vivid imagination and the fact that, although knowing it was a hideously bad idea, I used to stay up to watch horror movies when I was supposed to be sleeping (sorry Mum!). I can’t go anywhere in the house without a light source. Every morning I have to screw up my courage to go down the stairs (if I turn on the landing light Beth will wake up before her breakfast is ready and that girl is most definitely NOT a morning person) because I’m half convinced that this is what will be waiting for me at the bottom. Our garage has a huge gaping hole in the roof leading to a loft space which of course is perfect for something to be lurking ready for me to walk underneath. As through the garage is the easiest way to get Beth and all her guff into the house, when winter is here home time always involves a mad dash to the light switch at the OTHER END of the garage before unloading can commence. I won’t even go into why no limb can ever hang over the side of the bed, all doors have to be closed never ajar and a light HAS to be within easy distance of the bed.

Looking back, I’ve had this fear as long as I can remember. My parents have informed me that it originated from an exhibition of stuffed animals and their glass eyes (thank you very much Norwich Castle). I can’t remember these original nightmares, but it affected me enough to need to have all my toys taken out of the bedroom and a light on in my room to be able to sleep. That then progressed to the landing light being left on and the door open, at the age of 14 I decided I was too old for that and so substituted the landing light for plastering my walls and ceiling with glow in the dark stars. At university it was falling asleep with the TV on or a DVD playing on my laptop. Now, however, there is nothing to distract me. Fortunately our bedroom is near a street light, so long as I allow myself to get over the initial “oh my god DARK!” reaction it’s actually light enough for me to see around.

Now that Beth is here I’m very conscious of the fact that when she gets older I can pass this fear on to her just by letting her see and perceive it. Obviously I need to find better coping techniques than the perceived safety found in a light switch! To some extent I’ve succeeded. Although when Beth first went through to her own room I was a mess. Not from the separation, I actually slept better without all of her little noises in the room with us, but from the fact that there was a dark corridor to walk down, a huge gaping black pit of a staircase perfect for something to crawl up and lets not forget the loft hatch right outside her bedroom door (many thanks to my university colleagues for that one!)! Night feedings were the worst, I would lose my night vision as I needed to turn on the light a small amount to see what I was doing thus making the walk back to my own bedroom fraught with unseen peril. Enter the night light! Making the corridor slightly less terrifying as I’d at least be able to see the bastards coming! Now I’m happy to say I can walk through to her bedroom and give her a cuddle in the dark and then go back to bed with only a small twinge (probably not after finishing this post however). Although if we’re being completely honest, 5 minutes of her screaming and pointing at thin air is my limit before I’m stamping on the floor lamp like my life depends on it.

As you might have guessed I get to face this fear every night (yippee!) and some nights are better than others (halloween is a particularly bad time). But I am not the only one who has to encounter a deep seated fear on a regular basis. Many of the children we teach have their own fears, some are shy, some are scared of forgetting the form moves (right there with ya guys!), some are scared of the fast moving games with gym balls bouncing all over the place, others of being in a situation where they will be singled out. Where we adults go wrong, I feel, is sometimes thinking that these kids need to just get on and deal with it. That if they only got stuck in they’d realise it’s not as bad as it seems and they’re just being a bit silly by allowing something so small to get in their way. But actually they’re not, and by trying to buoy them up and jolly them along we little realise that we could actually be making the problem worse and entrenching the fear even deeper. I’ve been reading a book called “How to talk so kids will learn, at home and in school.” while most of the book is written in a fairly patronising way (in my opinion at least) there was one thing that really struck a chord with me. To help a child move past a problem, you need to acknowledge their feelings about the problem. As an adult I find I tend to try and fast track the child around the problem and getting to they part where they’re having fun. I talk to them about how they’ll be fine practicing the moves we’re learning they just have to try their best, once they get involved it won’t be so scary because everyone will help them in the lesson, it’s okay the balls aren’t very hard so if they hit you they won’t hurt etc. By talking to the children like this I was hoping to shore up their confidence enough for them to join in and to start having fun and forget the fear in the first place. What I didn’t realise I was doing was actually dismissing how they were feeling, by trying to jump straight into cheering them up I was subconsciously telling them that how they felt didn’t matter. Which pretty much has the opposite effect to what I’m trying to do, by doing this I’m telling them I don’t understand and they don’t want to listen to any advice that they are given by someone like that. By acknowledging what they are feeling, they can see you understand and see why they are scared and can then accept any advice you have for them.

To illustrate I have two personal examples that happened in the same lesson. It was the final games week before we finished for Christmas, as there weren’t very many children we combined the classes together and took the Tiny Tigers (our youngest students) up to join in with the Little Dragons (our second oldest students). I had to quickly go and pick up some stuff from the office before the lesson finished and so was in a hurry to get everything sorted before I left. One of the Tiny Tigers turned to me as we were lining up and told me that they didn’t like going upstairs to which I immediately replied “It’ll be okay, we’re going to run around and play games and have loads of fun!”, do you see what I did there? While trying to reassure them so they could join in more rapidly I effectively dismissed how they were feeling. What would have been better is if I had recognised that they were a bit intimidated about going upstairs and joining in with a lot of older children playing games and vocalised this realisation with them. They would then (hopefully) have felt more reassured that I understood why they didn’t like the thought of going upstairs and would have felt more reassured by me telling them that it was going to be okay. They did join in later and were having loads of fun when I returned, but how much quicker would they have joined in if I had taken that short amount of time to help them vocalise that trepidation?

Later on towards the end of the lesson in the final game there was another Tiny Tiger who didn’t want to join in. I sat there fruitlessly trying to encourage them to join in until I remembered what I had read. I looked at the swarm of children surrounding Rob (one of our instructors) and suddenly realised that although it was a fairly quite game (Terracotta Warriors which is played by sneaking up on someone and standing very still in a designated pose if that person turns around for the curious among you) it could still be very intimidating with a large crowd of children playing it, especially if a lot of them were bigger than you and you didn’t know many of them. I turned to the Tiny Tiger and just asked “Is it because there’s lots of people?”, a small nod of the head, “How about we go up together really slowly?” a hand held out and a very cautious creep up to take a cone from Rob showed how effective vocalising this one fear was for that child.

Now I am in no way suggesting that dwelling on a fear is a great idea, but by not acknowledging it at all, we risk repressing it further and it growing without awareness. My automatic responses to the dark are now so ingrained that I am often unaware I’m doing them….that is until the lights don’t work. By listening to a child’s fear we allow them to express themselves and we can then respond in a way that is useful to them and gives them tools to help deal with that fear. When we don’t really listen we are not aware and so it is impossible to help the child, or ourselves, find an intelligent way of conquering our fears!

And just so you all know. Acknowledging and facing my fears writing this post has not only made me stronger, but now means that I won’t be sleeping again…..ever.

Sweet dreams.