The evolution of fear

Out of all of the phases of development I’ve observed in Arthur so far, this one seems to me the most bittersweet. It appears to be emerging hand in hand with his increased understanding, linguistic ability and imagination, and all of those things are obviously to be desired and encouraged. But this emotion above all others is one which has the potential to hold him back, to curb his curiosity, to keep him firmly within his comfort zone.


This emotion is fear.

The first time I remember witnessing fear take over his little body was at a festival last summer. We’d bumped into a friend of ours, someone we don’t see very often but who had met Arthur several times since he was tiny. This time, though, he had a big orange beard. And Arthur was petrified.

He’s never been super-keen on beards, but this was something else. He went from being chilled and cuddly in the sling to screaming and trying to climb up me to escape, and no reassurance would convince him otherwise.

Several months later, I went to take him swimming. We were in a pool we’ve swum in many times before – in fact Arthur had his very first experience of swimming there when he was just six weeks old. But this time he suddenly became aware of the shadowy hole at the end of the pool which houses the cover. He wouldn’t go anywhere near it, and panicked even when I moved towards it. Over the half an hour or so we were in there he built it up so much that he wouldn’t actually stray from the steps at the very opposite end, and even then he was tense and wary.

Both of those were pretty much isolated incidents, and beyond trying to work out what was going on in Arthur’s magical brain I didn’t think too much of it. But in the past few months, as his language and memory skills have developed further, so has his capacity for fear.

He is particularly terrified of hand driers. It’s the sound of rushing air I think – he doesn’t care much for vacuum cleaners or hairdryers either, and is pretty wary of the extractor fan. But hand driers – the sort that are ubiquitous in public bathrooms – they are something else.

It’s got to the point now that if I even mention needing to go to the toilet when we are out a flash of fear crosses his face and he exclaims repeatedly ‘no hand driers!’. If I have to take him in with me, he will cower in the corner of the cubicle, trying to shrink away from the potential threat even if there are no hand driers to be seen. And heaven forbid one is actually activated in his presence! I brushed against one accidentally in a particularly cosy cubicle the other week and I thought he was actually going to climb over the walls.

The other thing that he reserves a special kind of horror for is doctors, particularly if they’re working in a hospital. I think I can trace this back to the immunisations he had when he was only eight weeks old. I will never forget his face in the aftermath – the look of ultimate betrayal he gave me. We are fortunate that he hasn’t had many dealings with doctors, but his dislike of them has escalated nonetheless.

We had to take him in to A&E over New Year with a particularly nasty bout of croup, and the way he screamed when the (very lovely, gentle) doctor tried to examine him took even the emergency room staff by surprise – though at least it showed that there wasn’t anything too seriously wrong with him.

It happened again at his two year check. I was chatting away to the health visitor at our community hospital whilst he happily played with the toys she’d set out when I made the mistake of mentioning this fear of hospitals. His ears pricked up, he looked around him, and he began to wail, scratching at the door to escape. It took both of our best efforts to calm him down enough for the most rudimentary assessment, and I’m just glad she was experienced and  open-minded enough not to conclude there was something seriously wrong with him!

This fear is one which is potentially a little tricky for us to get around, what with his dad currently training to be a doctor and all. Friends advised me to get Arthur a little doctor’s play set so that we could work to familiarise him through role play. I did, but he literally will not go anywhere near it – running away if I approach him with the cute little case in hand, eyeing it warily and keeping a wide berth if he suddenly realises it’s in the same room as him.

I guess the next stage is actually going in to see daddy at work. We’ve talked about it, and he’s gradually transitioning from being upset at the prospect of Leigh even being there himself – “No daddy work at hospital!” – to being able to discuss it without the rising panic.

I find it all very interesting, objectively, because on the whole Arthur is a very brave, very confident little boy. He’s intrigued by new experiences, loves getting to know new people, will pick himself up if he stumbles without as much as a whimper. But clearly there is something about these particular triggers that has captured his imagination.

Avoiding the things he is afraid of doesn’t seem like a sensible option: I don’t want him to become fearful, to put his demons in boxes and not face up to them. At the same time, though, it is horrible to see him quite genuinely terrified. So we will proceed very gently, easing him into a place where he can see that his fears are (largely) unfounded.

I’d be curious to hear about other people’s experiences around toddlers and fear – what it is that scares them, and how you’ve helped them to overcome it. I realise that to some extent being afraid is part of what makes us human, but I hope that I can learn to help him learn how to embrace his fears and use them to make him stronger rather than shrinking his world and shying away from the things that make him scared.




7 thoughts on “The evolution of fear

  1. susan Lovett

    maybe there is scope to write some Arthur books………..” how vacuums work,why they make a noise and why we use them” What do doctors do each day and why they need to prick the skin with needles…. I am sure you can come up with better angles.

    He is SO bright that he could digest such facts and then make sense of these things. They only need to be digital one offs that could contain his favourite characters negotiating these things.

    xxx >

  2. Virtually All Sorts (@AllSortsHere)

    I wish I had some pearly words of wisdom for you Sophie. From my little 5 years’ experience of being a mum, I’d say to just gently coax the subject, maybe get him to draw something about fear or something he doesn’t like. Why not draw a very simplistic picture of Leigh in his doctor’s coat with the biggest smiley face, then pop yourself and Arthur next to it. Just idly chatting and telling yourself (more than telling him directly) what you’re drawing. You never know, he might just be interested enough to come and have a look. Little steps x #theprompt

  3. Mrs TeePot (@MrsTeepot)

    Wish I had some wise words for you, something to suggest, but I’m afraid I have nothing. All I can say is try not to let them progress, dealing with them while young is, in my opinion, the best way.

  4. Sara (@mumturnedmom)

    It’s so hard to watch them when they are afraid, isn’t it. The 6yo was terrible with needles for awhile, which made immunisations a nightmare, but he did eventually (albeit slowly!) grow out of it. I think the biggest thing we can do is be patient and reassure, and to not belittle their fears, they are very real to them. Other than that, it’s just about taking it slowly and working through it. As Olivia says, we do need to try our best to make sure they don’t escalate. I wish I had more useful pearls of wisdom! Thank you so much for sharing with #ThePrompt x

  5. tracey at Mummyshire

    Watching your children be fearful of something is so hard as a parent because you see their pain, their real anxieties and you just want to sooth them and take them away. Fear is so irrational, but for a 4yo it’s so very real. In my limited experience with my two (oldest now 7yo) we have talked and talked and talked a lot – and I mean a lot, going over the same thing again and again – but at their pace; asking her open questions and then trying to answer them in a way that pacifies and placates but at their own pace. Sometimes just seeing you being strong and not fearful helps, over time, to reassure them. It’s hard, but I think it just takes time and lots of reassurance – and cuddles – from all those around him.


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