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.

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