Some children are more naturally fearful than others. This is regardless of their experiences. Some of us are risk-takers and others are more cautious. There are shades of grey along that spectrum, with the more extreme end being very cautious and not wanting to take any risks. Children who are nearer this end of the spectrum often struggle socially, and school playgrounds can seem like frightening places.
When children are frightened, they can withdraw or attack. Feelings can become extreme. We often see this when a new child joins a school. Generally, the new child is naturally fearful of how the other children will be. He or she may deal with this fearfulness by being quiet and watchful, or by being extra loud and even aggressive. The other children in the class can react with equally varying degrees of fear – some will seek out the new child and be helpful, others might bully the new child. Bullies often bully because they are feeling fearful themselves. They can find someone else who is feeling like they are to bully in order to make themselves feel better and stronger. Much easier to locate the fearfulness in someone else, especially if they are new and unknown. Equally, the new child may bully, for the same reasons. Eventually most children manage to find a balance and will begin to find one or two friends – the fearfulness goes and normality returns.
Some children are more fearful because of their experiences too. They might have had difficult earlier years, due to parental separations, illness, family problems, trauma. These experiences, together with a natural cautiousness, can lead to children developing a belief that the world is not a place to be trusted or liked. They might think that people are there to possibly hurt them and that no-one is interested in them unless it is to gain something for themselves. They will tend to hide their vulnerability due to their mistrust, and withdraw from reaching out and making a connection with children or adults, or become aggressive and attacking. Whichever strategy they adopt, it can make the problem worse, as peers are likely to find their behaviour difficult and begin to avoid them.
These children are more towards the extreme end of fearfulness, and can be challenging for parents and teachers. We can learn from them that what appears to be confronting or rejecting behaviour might be to do with being fearful and hiding vulnerability. Some adolescents in particular will be hurtful and rude if they are feeling fearful. Many troubled adolescents are excluded from schools and clubs because their feelings of fearfulness, mistrust, and of not being understood, have spiralled. They build up defences that become like impenetrable walls, and it takes time to chip away at them. To get to the vulnerability in children and adolescents who have built up defences against fearfulness takes time, but it is important to remember that their fear of showing their vulnerability can be the cause of their difficult behaviour. It is by seeing the child behind the behaviour that we can begin to ease fear and encourage trust. In doing this, connections seem easier and a more positive spiral can begin.
Dr Angela Evans
Child & Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Member of the Association of Child Psychotherapists