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Natalie Clauss

The sense of fear

The topic of fear comes up every now and then, especially with children. We may be afraid of war, spiders, or accidents. But children are afraid of the dark, of monsters under the bed or the neighbor's dog. Often this fear is quickly dismissed with phrases like, "That's nothing bad, you don't have to be afraid of that." But these or similar statements often do not help because the child's fear is not taken seriously. The fear of darkness, for example, is very real for the child and we tend to treat it pejoratively when we judge that it is not bad.

The basic emotions

Fear is one of the seven basic emotions according to Ekmann. The other basic emotions are anger, joy, disgust, surprise, sadness and contempt. According to Ekmann, basic emotions are deeply rooted in us, including genetically. They are part of all of us because of our long evolution. And yes evolutionarily speaking, fear of the dark and fear of monsters or dangerous animals actually make a lot of sense all at once. In the Stone Age, if a baby was alone in the dark, there was a quick danger of dying, either starving and dying of thirst or, much more likely, being eaten by wild animals. The fear of monsters is also directly evident here, as they imply an unassessable danger to the baby.

Finally, the complex emotions build on the basic emotions. Here, the entire range of emotions that we as humans have at our disposal becomes apparent. The complex emotions include, for example, shame, pride, insecurity and loneliness.

Functions of emotions

I have already described in the upper part of the text an important function that emotions can have; namely the protective or regulatory function. However, fear as an example of an emotion also serves to evaluate a situation. In a tiny moment, a situation is evaluated as dangerous, i.e. a situation in which we should possibly be afraid, or as harmless. This happens so quickly that we don't even notice it. Emotions are also an expression of our inner emotional state and mood. Thus, they also serve to communicate with other people, when we show the emotions through our gestures and facial expressions, or even express them verbally.

Let us now return to the example with fear. When a situation is classified as dangerous, that is, becomes evaluative, fear is a natural reaction to it. And the fear in the darkness makes sense as already described above. A code written in thousands of years in all of us cannot (unfortunately) be changed within perhaps a few decades or centuries. Our instincts and genes don't know that we sleep in safe nurseries where a baby monitor transmits every sound to the parents. They don't know that dangerous animals are usually only found here in the zoo, but where they are captive and nothing can happen to us. If our baby shows us his fear, for example by crying or screaming, we can react to it and calm him down and show that we are there for him.

How do I counter children's fears?

Our children's fears are real, just as real as our fear of war or whatever we are afraid of. Would I say to you, "You don't have to be afraid, there's nothing there" or even "That's nonsense! Don't make such a fuss!", nobody would be helped, because this would probably intensify the fear. But for sure I would devalue your feeling, the fear, and show that it is not real. You would not feel taken seriously and would hardly experience self-efficacy. Self-efficacy, by the way, is the feeling that you yourself can influence a situation. So if at some point my son says he's afraid of the monster under the bed, I look with him to see if there's a monster there. Very carefully, of course. We could spray a "monster spray" (advertisement: example of a monster spray; can also be easily made by yourself) that drives away all monsters. This makes children feel their feelings are taken seriously and they don't have to hide them from us. But I also think it's important not to consciously reinforce fears. Older people in particular often report that they were told scary stories in the evenings when they were children. This, in my opinion, gives fear too much importance.

Fear and phobia or anxiety disorder

There are some mental illnesses in which fear appears as a (central) symptom. Here, the extent of the fear and the internal evaluation of the situation or object are decisive. We speak of a phobia when the fear is triggered by situations or objects that are actually harmless, e.g. a spider. In a panic disorder, unpredictable, severe anxiety attacks occur, whereby no reference to specific situations or objects is recognizable here. Of course, children can also have an anxiety disorder. However, this occurs much less frequently than in adults. Certain fears of children can also be directly assigned to the appropriate developmental phases and are thus part of natural development. In case of doubt, however, this should be discussed with a (specialist) doctor.

What about our fears?

Many adults are afraid of spiders. Or of wasps. Or of snakes. But let's be honest, how well-founded are these fears? Little, if at all. In Germany, there are hardly any dangerous spiders or snakes, and even a wasp sting wouldn't kill us if we weren't allergic to them. But these fears seem somehow accepted in society, especially among women. Let's accept our children's fears too and take them seriously, because these are real and make evolutionary sense!

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