Being brave doesn’t mean that you are not afraid.
Being brave means to keep your own fear and anxiety under control, and not curtail your children’s freedom to develop. Some people find that easier than others. Some cannot let go of their fears, and their kids grow up with the same if not worse phobias and anxieties than their parents.
As a parent, you most likely want your kids to be resilient, confident, and live life on their terms. You want them to be courageous and brave, without taking uncalculated risks.
While watching your kids learn some lessons the hard way can be daunting for most parents, it can be even harder, if you are an anxious parent. If you are prone to worries and get easily scared but want your kid to be brave – this article is for you. And you may just get some ideas on how to become a little less anxious, too.
To have kids automatically means to worry. But if the worries turn into full blown anxiety or fears, it can have consequences for the children. Parents who are afraid raise kids who are afraid. While some traits are consciously learned from our parents, many are unconsciously copied.
Fear through Social Observation
Many fears are developed through social observation. Humans, as well as animals are designed to copy fears from others. Learning to respond appropriately to environmental stimuli that predict potentially harmful events is an adaptive mechanism crucial to the survival of any organism. This is great when you copy survival mechanisms. Imagine a little baby antelope. An antelope can’t afford to get bitten by a lion just to develop fear of them. An antelope needs to learn to be afraid of a lion before it has a negative experience with it. If the herd runs, the baby antelope will run too. And if the other antelopes run from a lion, the bay one will too. Next time it is the first to spot a lion, it will run again! Just like that, us humans learn fear through social observation and verbal communication. This is more efficient and associated with way fewer risks than learning through direct dangerous or unpleasant experiences.
Kids will often role model their parents. If they see you are afraid, they will likely be afraid, too. Even if their fear is completely illogical in relation to the situation. So, what can you do, to raise brave little beings, when all you want to do is hide?
Fear and Courage anecdotes
A friend told me that it took her years to realise how worried her parents were about her constantly. Only after her friends made her aware that being that sheltered “wasn’t normal” did she reflect on her parents’ style of upbringing. After she realised that she was mollycoddling her kids just as much as she had been by her parents, she made the conscious effort to at least let them experience the” norm”. In the city she lived in the norm meant that once kids went from kindergarten to primary school (aged 6) they would walk to school alone in groups of 3 or more – without parents present.
While constantly worried when her kids were out of sight, she consciously decided to let them develop free of fear. Once the kids hit 8 years old, they were allowed to travel the city by bus and train, as well as play outside until sunset in the parks, forest and at the local swimming lake. The compromise was that they had to always carry a prepaid mobile phone with them.
My own parents were the opposite. Confident and fearless. Spiders were touched with bare hands, and (despite learning later that Dad was afraid of heights) many hikes undertaken, close to the cliff edge and nothing more than a word of warning as a kid to not “go to close”. My parents definitely relied on my common sense from an early age– I was playing in the woods with the neighbour kids from age 4 and remember getting stuck up in a tree and not being able to come down. Instead of being afraid, I just asked my friends to run home to get my dad to help me out of the tree before sunset. They continued to raise me with that mindset all through to adulthood, I was a teenager with barely any rules, and my parents trusted me to make my own decisions, learn from my mistakes and be responsible for my actions.
My dad had his confident behaviour to take calculated risk from his mum. My nana was wild – we went for a hike when she was in her 80s and close to the peak of the mountain in the alps we were aiming for was a ca. 30m long vertical ladder up a rockface. It was either the ladder or a 20 min detour to the top, so my grandma hoisted her hiking skirts, grabbed the walking sticks in one hand, and climbed up the ice-covered ladder. I would have preferred the detour but couldn’t be caught dead being more scared than my old nana who wasn’t nearly as fit and strong as I was. I am still not a fan of heights, and neither the love of climbing or being a skydiver for many years has cured this (yet!). But I keep facing this fear every single week knowing that if people like my nana can do it, I can. What used to be panic attacks when face with heights is now just an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach, but no full-blown anxiety anymore.
Courage through Social Observation
I distinctly remember a friend of mine being afraid of spiders. Even daddy longlegs. Spending time at his family when young I observed his own dad screaming and running from a spider, which my mate got to see. He’d learned that spiders are scary by watching his dad. When prompted by 5-year-old me as to why he was afraid of the “cute” spider, he couldn’t tell me anything that he thought scary about a spider, just that “they are”. He observed, like the antelope ‘If dad runs, there is a reason…’. I thought him silly and started playing with the spider. I build a little lego town and kept herding it back to its “new home”. After a few minutes of me giggling and the spider running away all the time he joined in. These days he removes nonvenomous spiders with his hands and his wife loves him for it. Unknowingly what peer modelling was back then, I modelled the joy of playing with these creatures until he decided they aren’t scary. Likewise, the chances to copy your parents’ fears are pretty high – whether that’s being afraid of spiders or copying the fear of what other people think about your outfit or opinion or heights – the possibilities are endless.
The good news is just as in my spider example above– we do not just learn how to be scared by watching, we can also learn how to be brave.
Learn how to be brave
Especially kids can learn very quickly how to overcome their fears in a group. Kids challenge each other, and watch what others do, with an intrinsic motivation to copy them and learn and develop. Have you ever watched kids in a pool? If there is a kid who is already brave enough to jump of the 3m board, you can often watch them giving instructions to a younger kid or one that’s a little scared on how to do it, and shows him/ her over and over again. Every time that kid comes out of the pool with a big smile from jumping, the more anxious kid will want to experience the same – and eventually do it once it observed multiple successful attempts by someone of similar age and skill.
The concept of observational learning, or modelling, was first introduced by Albert Bandura in the 1960s as part of his influential work on social learning theory. Albert Bandura used peer modelling as therapy for children to overcome their fear of dogs. During one of his studies, children who were afraid of dogs were made to watch another child for 20 minutes a day. The observed children played happily and lively with a dog (after they were given a book on body language of a dog to identify the mood the dog was in) and were giggling and laughing while doing so and completely confident around the dog. On day 4 of the experiment 67% of the observing children were ready to initiate or join play with the dog, and later surveys showed that these kids were permanently cured of their fear of dogs. Similar experiments regarding peer modelling showed great success in children with snake phobias.
During his later years, Bandura’s studies showed that watching videos where other kids played with dogs was enough to cure dog phobias in most children.
More interestingly though, not just zoophobias but also social anxiety in young children can be minimised or eliminated using this approach.
Robert O’Connor, a psychologist experimenting with peer modelling in the late 1960s showed shy kindergarten kids who were afraid to approach others a 23 minute long video. The video had 11 scenes with the same content but various scenarios: ‘A child sits aside from the rest of a group in kindergarten watching the others play. Eventually it picks up some courage and decides to join the game – to everyone’s delight.’ The success of this study was incredible. Shy and socially anxious children who watched the movie started actively participating in group games straight away, and 6 weeks after the experiment those kids were just as socially active and confident as the rest of the group.
Adults can learn how to be brave, too
While kids react quicker to peer modelling then adults, it is also a way for adults to reduce their anxieties. Some parents who were afraid of dogs actually got over their fears after watching their kids interact happily and repeatedly with one of the experiment dogs.
If you’re ready to brave your fears together with your child, take babysteps, and start with small experiments.
Whether you decide to brave your own fears, brave your fears together with your child or are happy to let your child take the lead for now, find models for your child (and yourself) to watch that are confident around the topic you are anxious about. This could be a friend, a relative, a professional, another child or even a stranger observed from afar. Use a variety of models for the peer modelling to be most successful, such as
- Someone who actively has overcome a fear, too
- Someone who is similar to you (or your child). We usually observe people we can identify with more closely than others and are more likely to imitate them
Someone attractive – whether that’s a cartoon character or somebody you admire, if we aspire to be like someone, we often copy their behaviour
- Multiple people – watching a group display the desired behaviour is more convincing than a single person
Asking other children to role model behaviour to your child is especially effective with specific problems, whether that’s a fear of heights or spiders. All the models must do is to let themselves be observed on how they interact with the phobia, in this case faced with a spider or climbing a structure in the playground.
Fake it till you make it
Try not to show your fears. I remember seeing a 2-year-old, determined to roll down a small grass slope on her balance bike, going over her handlebars multiple times, brushing herself of and going again until she finally succeeded. Her parents were looking on, clearly anxious, but keeping their fears to themselves, knowing she was protected with a helmet and landing on soft grass where the consequences of falling were minimal. The look on her face, of happiness and accomplishment was worth it.
If your children come home and enthusiastically tell you about their experience at the zoo (Mum, I pet a snake, and the spider crawled up my sleeve), or your 7-year-old tells you proudly about her mountainbike skill session (I went over the bars, twice, but I kept going and eventually learned how to jump) keep your “OMG, yuck, that’s terrible” or “What, that’s way to dangerous” comments to yourself. This can be hard but be glad you were not there to watch as their experience would have been worse with a panicking parent on site. A better way to handle the situation is to ask your kids how they experienced the situation, and what they did to handle it so well. You may be surprised by their answer and learn a new coping mechanism from them, too. While you want to protect your kids 24/7, that’s not feasible, and being afraid and worrying is not going to change past actions.
Being anxious isn’t easy, but neither is being brave
Being an anxious person isn’t always easy. Friends and family will often try to push you to step out of your comfort zone, telling you that it’s not as bad as you think it is or telling you to just suck it up. It’s not that easy to reprogram your mind, even though it is doable. It’s also possible to be brave in some situation, such as bombing down the hill on a mountainbike and anxious in others, such as picking up the phone to make an appointment or being in a group of people you don’t know.
It is however possible to overcome your fears if you’re willing to do so. Which of course, is the hardest part. Once you’re ready to follow in your kids’ footsteps you may surprise yourself, and maybe one day you will hear your child ask you” What are you doing in the chairlift mummy? You usually take the gondola.”. It is great for kids to observe that their “old mum or dad” is still able to learn a new trick.
Trust your child and their abilities to get by in the world. Life is a series of adjustments and changes. Children gain a lot when their parents show them that they trust them to overcome the necessary hurdles. Ask yourself “Why am I telling my kid off? Am I slowing down my child to early?? What’s the worst that could happen?”
Whether you want to or not, you are already setting the scene when your kids are toddlers on whether they will be brave or anxious when exploring something new. Once they start walking and climbing stairs, they are expanding their horizon and learning about their own skills and strengths. Of course, they’ll often land on their nappies, especially at the start, or tumble down the slide at the playground. But they managed their first steps and experiences and that itself will give them confidence.
It’s similar with older kids. If your 5-year-old is swinging from bar to bar at the playground, and you yell out “Be careful, don’t hurt yourself” nothing is gained other than planting doubt in your child’s mind. It’s hard not to say anything, but when the little climber comes down successfully, feeling accomplished and runs towards you with a big smile on his face, ready to take on the world – it was worth it, wasn’t it?
Let them have their own experiences.
Tom Hodkinson says in ‘The Idle Parent’: “Being too-good a parent, doing too much for your children, I began to see, might result in a chronic lack of self-sufficiency on their part. Kids, who need their parents support and guidance for every step of the way, won’t go out into the world as brave and independent kids. Give them tasks. Tell them to “tie your shoelaces yourself, pack your bag for school, cook a meal, bake a cake” – it doesn’t matter what it is, every successfully mastered task by themselves will give them more self-confidence.
Only if they learn to deal with negative experience will not be discouraged in life and become resilient. As a parent, it’s time to put aside your own emotions, to show understanding for the situation, be empathetic and ask questions.
What doesn’t work is to play experiences down. When your kid tries something it’s afraid of reward it, praise it, show them that being courageous was worth the risk. A good example is vaccination time. If your kid is afraid of injections, let them know prior to the injection that it may hurt a little and they must be brave but then praise them for being so brave afterwards and reward them.
Spend time in nature
Not much will benefit your kids as much as being out and about in nature. Having small adventures with friends outdoors whether on a bushwalk, at the beach, in the park, or on a farm or camping holiday is a great way to develop confidence. Pretending to be pirates or treasure hunters, climbing trees, building bonfires, constructing dams in the local creek, a being in nature encourages kids to try out their strengths and abilities in a playful way and increases their belief in themselves.
What you can do to get started
There are a few simple things you can do to show your confidence to your little ones in day to day life and become a little more courageous yourself.
- When you are out for a walk – say hello to strangers in passing
- Ask your barista how he/she is this morning
- Ask the supermarket check out lady whether she is having a good day
- Hold the door open for someone you don’t know
- Compliment a stranger trying something on in a that suits them
- Balance on the curb – how far can you go
- Relocate that spider with a glass and paper towels
- Start a new hobby or sport, and take skill classes
On top of this, ensure you
- Make time for yourself: Take a hot bath, meditate, read a book. Dedicated “me-time” will help you to get much needed relaxation and lower those excess cortisol levels
- Learn how to breathe: That’s right, most adults in Australia don’t breathe properly. You can trick your brain into a calm state if you know how to breathe properly. Observe how your feelings of anxiety affect your breathing and vice versa.
- Go for a walk, move your body, go for a swim, do yoga – gentle exercise is great to feel more relaxed and happier afterwards
Being brave and courageous doesn‘t mean you’re not afraid or anxious. Being brave and courageous means to keep your own fears and anxiety under control, and not curtail your children’s freedom to make their own experiences, develop their own courage and watch them grow as humans.
Healthy adults with a strong will can keep their fears to themselves, and let their kids make their own experiences. However, if your panic and anxiety control you, and you can’t hide it from your kids and it’s affecting your and their everyday life it may be time to get professional help.
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- Bandura A. Social Learning Theory. New York: General Learning Press; 1977.
- Whalen PJ, Rauch SL, Etcoff NL, McInerney SC, Lee MB, Jenike MA. Masked presentations of emotional facial expressions modulate amygdala activity without explicit knowledge. Journal of Neuroscience. 1998;18:411–18.
- Olsson, A., Nearing, K. I., & Phelps, E. A. (2007). Learning fears by observing others: the neural systems of social fear transmission. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 2(1), 3–11. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsm005
- Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs: NJ: Prentice Hall. Bandura, A., Blanchard, E. B., & Ritter, B. (1969). Relative efficacy of desensitization and modeling approaches for inducing behavioral, affective, and attitudinal changes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 13(3), 173-199.
- Bandura, A., Grusec, J. E., & Menlove, F. L. (1967). Vicarious extinction of avoidance behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 5(1), 16- 23.