The Fearful Adult: When Fear Gets in the Way of Child Development

An occupational therapist came to observe the TimberNook program last week. The woods were alive with play and laughter. It was magical. Kids were collaborating in one corner of the woods with their newly appointed “leader,” whom was distinguished by the wearing a special feathered mask. Another cluster of children were building a store using logs, bricks, and rope. A fire was going and a few kids were roasting biscuits. The therapist kept saying, “This is so beautiful. What a wonderful thing you are doing for these children!”

All was going well in the TimberNook world, until…

A little girl let go of the rope swing in mid air and fell to the ground, knocking the wind out of her. Oh man… I instantly thought. This can’t be good. My natural tendency to worry, coupled with being a people pleaser--created overwhelming fear. I hope she is going to be okay! What is her mother going to think? What is this therapist watching me thinking? I desperately tried to push the fear that was starting to bubble to the surface down and quietly knelt next to the girl. The last thing I wanted to do was show that fear to the child or to the surrounding children for that matter.

The little girl’s lips were turning blue. She was panicking. Losing her breath must have been a new and scary sensation to her. I know I’ve experienced this at least once in my life, and it wasn’t any fun. “Breath,” I gently tell the girl. “You are going to be okay. You just lost your breath for a few seconds.” She starts crying. “You are crying. That is a good sign. It means you are breathing.” She starts crying harder. I’m starting to think the worse-case scenario. A few minutes pass. Eventually, she gets up with relative ease, wipes the tears off her face and is back on her feet again. I sigh a breath of relief.

She will be fine.

More than fine.

She just overcame a fear.



Picture via Happy Mantra

What if the scenario was different? What if I had shown that fear to that child? What if I decided to now alter the swing so there was no longer any risk or any supposed “danger” involved anymore? What would happen then?

Honestly? At that moment – I wanted to. It took some real courage and strength to move beyond the fear and look at the whole picture for what it really was: A girl was taking a risk - she fell and got hurt - she was initially scared - she got back up again and worked through her fear.

If I had shown great fear, that child would have been even more scared. She may not have tried that swing again. It is quite possible that she would even avoid all rope swings in the future.

If I had altered the swing to take away the thrill and the components of risk, that beloved rope swing (used countless times by many children) would lose much of its appeal. It quite possibly would become abandoned, and I would probably end up taking it down. Children would no longer have the opportunity to challenge their muscles as they grip onto the swing’s wooden handle, learn how to regulate risk and fear, and would no longer get this great vestibular (balance sense) feedback that so many children are lacking today.

This scenario is the real deal. How many times does fear of injury and liability change the game? I’m guessing more often than we would like. Adult fear often keeps children from testing their limits. Children can sense this and often this fear carries over into their own lives. I often hear adults saying, “no climbing that rock,” “no running,” “no spinning,” “no going up that slide,” “no playing tag,” “no jumping off,” and even “no sticks.” If we constantly tell children “no,” we are not letting them challenge their minds and bodies. We may even be keeping them from engaging their senses fully on a regular basis, which becomes a barrier for normal sensory integration in children.

The Star recently published an article called; Risky Play and Skinned Knees are the Key to Healthy Child Development. In this article, they state that even child injury prevention experts feel that we’ve gone too far. Pam Fuselli, vice-president at Parachute states, “We want kids to be out, we want kids to be active and engaged in whatever they’re doing. Bumps, bruises, scrapes, even simple breaks are part of acquiring skills.”

Peter Gray, a professor at Boston College and a researcher of children’s play, states that one purpose of play is for children to learn how to regulate their fear. He writes that researchers argue that play helps the young learn how to cope emotionally (as well as physically) with emergencies. Juvenile mammals of many species deliberately and consistently put themselves into moderately dangerous situations in their play. They may leap into the air, run along the edges of a cliff, swing from branch to branch, or play-fight to practice getting into risky situations that they must try to escape.

Gray states that human children will do the same thing, if given the chance. He says, “they are dosing themselves with fear, aimed at reaching the highest level they can tolerate, and learning to cope with it.”

As a pediatric occupational therapist, we call this the “just-right challenge.” We want and even encourage children to challenge themselves physically, mentally, and socially in order to maximize their play skills. All on their own, children will always seek out the neurological input that their body needs at that moment. For instance, if a child is jumping off of small rocks, their neurological system is ready for this level of risk and even needing this input to get to the next level of development.

If children are spinning around in circles, it is because their neurological system is seeking this input – trying to establish a strong sense of body awareness. Even falling helps children to have better positional sense of where their body is in space. It is when we prevent children from doing this on a consistent basis that we start to see problems in sensory organization.

Instead of reacting to our fears and quickly putting a stop to any supposed “risky” behavior, lets take a step back and really evaluate if this is actually something that would benefit the child. Obviously, we don’t want children running along the side of cliffs at extreme heights – but letting them go upside down on the monkey bars may not be such a bad idea after all. In fact, it is really good for their development.


"What if I fall?

Oh, darling what if you fly?"

- Author Unknown





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14-Aug-2014 08:51 AM Emily

I love this quote! This has pretty much been my parenting philosophy, but now it's awesome to be seeing it get so much mainstream attention.

05-Oct-2014 08:35 AM Lisa Gillispie

As a child, and still as an adult, I've struggled with a really high need for physical safety and the fear of falling, even just jumping from a tree stump to another tree stump. My daughter also struggles with this and now that I realize how important it is for her to take physical risks, it's been good motivation for me to feel the fear and do it anyway :) I love how you supported the child's recovery post fall and held space for her nervous system to regulate. Thanks for a great article!

22-Jan-2016 12:08 PM Kathleen Lockyer

Excellent! So important to bring this underlying fear to light. Many adults are not yet recognizing the fear that gets in the way of child development. BRAVO!


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