Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad World?

Karen Brooks considers the implications for our children, and for us as parents and carers, of a culture of fear and anxiety.

the flyBe afraid, be very afraid,” warns Geena Davis’s character in the 1986 sci-fi horror movie The Fly. Many years later, it seems that as a culture and as parents, we have taken her advice literally.

Once upon a time, back when we were kids, being afraid was only a temporary sensation. The monsters in the closet were easily banished by heroic and pragmatic parents. Kisses and time in mum and dad’s bed would banish even the most awful nightmares, and the notion that the scary shadows and inky blackness of nighttime was just daytime with its eyes shut worked wonders as well. So did the usual good advice about strangers, the relationship between fingers and power points, busy roads and other risky situations.

These days, however, not only has the list of potential threats grown exponentially to include a range of physical threats in the guise of people and objects, but even our climate poses a danger. Advised to ‘Slip, Slop, Slap’ and so prevent skin cancer and other sun-related diseases, many parents prefer to keep their kids indoors, thus also alleviating that other lurking threat – stranger danger.

But danger is not exclusive to the outdoors. It’s as likely to rear its frightening head in the home through the perils of surfing in cyberspace, and the content of TV programs, the internet and lyrics. Reports in the media, especially during slow-news weeks, often sensationalise what are, in many instances, one-off events. Dramatic accounts repeated across the tabloids merely exacerbate parental anxieties.

If you believe the news, we live in a world where monsters now leave closets with bombs strapped to their chests. The line between real and imagined fears is increasingly blurred. Hollywood makes movies about natural disasters, war and death, with bad guys blowing up buildings and people, while TV bulletins telling the same stories are beamed into our living rooms and splashed across newspapers day after day. And as if that’s not enough, there are also the headlines that remind us to be wary of our children’s teachers or the community’s spiritual leaders, as well as released convicts in the area – after all, any one of them could be a paedophile.

There’s little doubt that for parents and children the consequences of responding to these reports are very serious. On the one hand, if we try and rationalise them, and reason that most of the things we’re told will happen probably won’t, we’re made to feel as if we’re failing in our familial duty, that we’re putting our heads in the sand. On the other hand, if we react to the reports, then we run the risk of damaging our children in ways that make the ‘threats’ seem tame by comparison. Being overprotective can turn children into victims of the very society they need to, at best, be emotionally, psychologically and physically successful within and, at worst, survive within.

Responding to the plethora of bad news in the media, parents have developed a tendency to hover over their kids in order to prevent disasters that may never happen. Termed ‘helicopter parents’ by some, ‘pesky parents’ by others, or as I have referred to them, ‘smother mothers’ (which includes fathers), they’re parents who are so ‘hypervigilant’ that they’re ensuring their kids fail the most important lesson of all: life.

Unconsciously teaching their kids to worry about everything (from terrorism, COVID and to failing at anything), they’re also teaching them to trust no one, to be unhealthily dependent and to be isolated from a world which, despite what we’re being told, isn’t all that bad.

In his book XYZ: The New Rules of Generational Warfare, (published 2005) parenting educator Michael Grose argues that “One of the developmental tasks of childhood is the exploration of a child’s physical potential, which requires that the environment should provide a measure of challenge. Frequently, challenge is accompanied by a degree of danger. So when we remove the element of danger we also risk removing the challenge for children. The removal of risk neglects the notion that many children are heuristic learners; that is, they learn from experience rather than heeding well-intentioned advice.”

Herein lies the problem. Being apprehensive about our children’s welfare, whether that apprehension is founded or unfounded, makes them anxious, even paranoid, as well. Furthermore, what occurs is that instead of seeing a relationship between our own anxiety and that of our children, we ignore the cause and effect syndrome and pathologise our children’s reactive behaviour (even though, to a greater or lesser degree, it’s modelled on our own). What sometimes occurs when a child reacts, displaying antisocial conduct or even anxiety, is medical intervention.

Professor Linda Gilmore, an expert on child attention disorders, noted in an investigation into the over-diagnosing of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in Ipswich that “Anxious children can look very much like ADHD children”.

Are we making our children so afraid that they become unable to function?

Statistics tell us that the world is actually a safer place than it has ever been. The crime rate has fallen dramatically and road accidents have decreased. Also, despite increased reportage of sexual abuse, the sad fact is that it’s far more likely to come from a family member or friend than a stranger. Yet we teach our children to be wary of strangers, even when someone’s intentions may be good and kind.

What are we preparing our children for? We can’t wrap them in cotton wool, and we’re doing them no favours by trying to do so. As parents, we have a moral responsibility to work through our own fears and to avoid using fear as a mechanism of control. The foundation stones of life are laid during childhood and they’ll be shifting and unstable if based on fear.

Instead of being afraid, we need to be strong; to recognise that there are times throughout our lives when the going will get tough and people will let us down, and show our children how to cope. We need to teach them the skills for coping with strangers, good and bad, and remind them that for every bad person or event in the world, there are thousands of good ones.

We need to educate them about the difference between reality and fantasy, and discuss issues of violence with them, openly and honestly and, in doing so, try and limit their exposure to it and provide them with coping mechanisms.

Struggling with fears, both real and imagined, is part of the developmental process as well. It’s how we organise our place in the world and develop strategies for overcoming obstacles large and small. But it’s not just our children who have to do this – it’s us too. Childhood is short; adulthood is long. Our primary responsibility is to raise, to the best of our ability, children who are functioning and independent adults, not to hobble them with our paranoia and fears.

With a mixture of rationality, frank communication, nurturing and love – tough and not so tough – we can allay our children’s fears, and our own at the same time. We can relegate that monster back to the closet where he or she belongs.

Dr Karen Brooks is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at IASH at the University of Queensland.