Parents have occasionally, with understandable reluctance, shared with me that they are afraid of their own kid. Teachers have also confessed that they struggle with fear of certain children. What’s happening when adults are frightened in the presence of children whose behavior has that scary aspect, even when it’s not Halloween? Scary children have lost a great deal of their self-efficacy (the feeling of power over their own world) and developed scary behaviors as a defense. In other words, scary kids are scared.
Here are three ways in which we can replace our own fear with compassion, communicate gentleness instead of fear, and improve the relationship between adult and child.
First, kids who adapt to their world by scaring others have learned that it’s a scary world, either because of maltreatment or because of their own internal sensitivity. Extra-sensitive kids, who are taking the world in through their senses much more “loudly” than the average child, have to defend themselves against the sensory onslaught they are experiencing. Becoming scary feels like a good defense against the unpredictable overload of sight, sound, smell, taste, tactile or interpersonal input (or sometimes many of these at once.) To help these kids, develop a sensitivity in yourself for what they are experiencing, and address the overload, rather than the behavior. Say, “It seems like this place is too loud for you, so let’s get out of here.” Being seen this way heals the heart of the child, eliminating the need for his defense against the world, i.e. less scariness and more cooperation.
Another way of helping the child who is overloaded by sensory input is to seek the help of an occupational therapist, who can build up the child’s ability to integrate what his senses are telling him. When he can integrate the messages, he has less need to defend himself against them.
If the source of the scary behavior is maltreatment of the child, do everything you can to remove the child from the situation where the maltreatment occurs. That could be actually moving the child, or it could mean teaching the abusive adult how to interact in a healthy way. Parent coaching can accomplish this. Don’t wait another day, as each experience of emotional or physical abuse takes its toll on the child, no matter what age.
Second, work extra hard to control your own emotions in the presence of your child. Kids only see what they see, a yelling, ordering, impatient adult. They have no idea that you are merely mirroring the methods of your parents because you don’t have another way of dealing with them. Or if your behavior is due to stress, realize that the kids don’t have the perspective to empathize with you. If you need empathy and compassion to calm yourself down, find it through a close friend or counselor. Do not expect kids to understand that you are having a hard time. Empathy doesn’t develop until later in life, so please don’t expect it from your child. Be the adult, take care of yourself, and don’t blame the scary child. Remember, if he’s scary, he’s scared.
Third, comfort your scared child by seeing past the behavior and getting to the root of his fear. He may be intelligent beyond his years, and taking in way more information than he can handle. Focus in the present moment on what might be frightening your child by asking what the fear might be: “Could it be that you are afraid of the other kids on the bus? If so, I can talk to the school and get that resolved.” “Could it be that you are afraid that your dad or I might die because you see grandpa suffering with cancer? I sure understand that, and please know that I’m doing everything I can to keep myself healthy for you.” “Could it be that you’re worried that I’ll get in an accident when I go to the store? How about if I call you when I arrive, so you know I’m safe?” “Could it be that you are afraid of the change in school? I will call the teacher and we’ll make a plan to help you feel safe.”
If a child feels secure, has some sense of control of his world, and is assured about the future, there’s no need to defend himself with scary behavior. As his adult guide, focus on what he needs to reach the state of calm, and the positive behavior will naturally follow.
If you “feel afraid of this kid”, and would like help with reducing the fear in your home or classroom, call or write to Tina Feigal at 651-453-0123 or firstname.lastname@example.org.