Talking A Child Through A Fear
This afternoon an extraordinary thing happened when I was teaching a class of 7 years olds on the climbing wall at my school. There is one particular challenge on the wall that can not be achieved unless a person overcome a certain amount of fear. Well, there I was in utter shock because a boy that I thought would never achieve this goal because of the long list of diagnostic labels that he wears, scaled the height, rang the bell, and was on his way back. Most children jump from the height which is maybe 8 feet onto cushioned mats, but when this boy looked down, he was filled with terror and expressed it openly and loudly to the group. Two other children were on the same obstacle trying to finish the climb, which made it seem to him that he could not climb his way down. So he was terrified to jump and stuck from climbing back down.
As I was watching him and began to make my way over to help intervene, a few children started saying things like, “Don’t be scared!” I knew this was not helpful. When a person is in a fearful state, their logical rational mind that is calm does not function well. They go to their unconscious stressed mind. In that state, don’t be scared means that you should be terrified. The unconscious doesn’t deal with polar opposites and specifically negatives. It only hears, “Be scared.”
So I convinced the other children on the wall to jump off thus giving a path for this boy to climb his way down. As I was speaking to him, I kept giving him a lot of reassurance that he was doing really well with each step. Meanwhile a few children were still yelling, “Don’t be scared.” I told them that it wasn’t very helpful to use those words because they don’t work, and somehow they got it. Instead of negative comments, they started saying things like, “You are doing great.” The more we all said these things, along with some specific technical advice about where to place his hands and feet, the faster he came down. It was pretty fascinating that they all just changed on a dime.
Later, when I was talking to the climber, he kept talking about his fear and the technical problems, but he was fully encouraged about doing it again on a different day despite the emotional turmoil he had experienced.
I was thinking later that the principle in helping a person through fear is not to tell them not to have the fear because that seems to just exacerbate the experience. The principle is to tell someone how well they are working through the fear by constantly giving them positive statements. The problem with telling a person to “not” something is that it still keeps all of the attention on the something. When you tell them how well they are doing, the attention moves from the fear to competence because they can see that they are making progress in spite of the fear.
The tennis instructor in my condo uses this principle in a less fearful situation, but it is still the same. He starts people off by giving a small amount of technical advice. Then he puts them through a drill to practice the new skill. As the skill is being practiced he gives constant positive feedback when they are doing it right. If I child hits 25 out of 30 balls correctly, he will hear the instructor say something positive 25 times. The instructor never says anything about the missed shots. This so works so well because the positive comments keep you in the same successful mode, while at the same time allows you to disregard the negative missed shots. If he were to be critical, focusing on the 5 missed shots, rather than the 25 correct, then the child would eventually learn to pay attention only to mistakes and become discouraged by them. This instructor is loaded with business.