Kids’ Big Fears: Part I

I came home for lunch one day in first grade and the house was empty. As a minute stretched into five and then 15, I became convinced that my mom was gone forever.

Addressing kids' fears can make camp more fun.

Sounds like the start of a therapy session, right?

But being abandoned is a core fear that all humans harbor.

I’m happy to report that my mom did return (stuck in traffic after a haircutting appointment that ran long), and I cried tears of relief between bites of peanut butter and jelly.

I don’t panic anymore when loved ones are late, but I do channel my 6-year-old self when I’m talking a camper down from hysterical homesickness, or talking a camper up a tricky climbing route.

An understanding of kids’ big fears puts all youth-development professionals in a better position to empathize and encourage.

So get ready to dig deep, because some of the time we don’t even realize we’re churning up children’s fears.

Some children are afraid of spiders, snakes, or heights. (Some adults are, too, mind you.) Many specific phobias make biological sense. For example, it’s adaptive to be afraid of standing on the edge of a cliff, because you back off and are, therefore, more likely to survive.

In this article, I’ll not discuss specific phobias. Instead, I’ll focus on core fears.

In my estimation, these include:

• Being judged

• Looking stupid

• Being shamed

• Getting lost

• Losing control

• Being abandoned

There is at least one other core fear as well: dying. For that topic, I’ve invited Scott Arizala to guest-write an article for this column since he has extensive experience working with campers who have terminal illnesses or whose parents have died or are dying. This is a somber topic, to be sure, but an essential one for anyone seriously committed to working with youth from every quarter.

For now, let’s take a look at each of the other core fears in turn, with a special eye toward what the fear might look like at camp, what might generate the fear, and what staff can do to soothe mounting anxieties.

Being Judged

Campers may feel judged for a number of reasons, including their native tongue, country of origin, skin color, body size, and physical skills (or lack thereof).

I’ve spoken to tall campers who don’t play basketball and who fear the obvious questions about why not; obese campers who fear being judged as stupid or un-athletic; British campers who fear the constant requests to “do Harry Potter”; and uncoordinated campers who fear the probable dip in popularity if peers find they cannot swim or throw a baseball.

I’ve even spoken to campers who fear being judged as uncool because they don’t watch TV, and therefore can’t partake in the banter about characters and episodes.

In their hearts, most campers would rather be assessed on their sense of humor and kind behavior toward others, rather than a more obvious characteristic, such as accent, skin color, or body type.

The fear of being judged may be manifested in a number of ways at camp, including withdrawn behavior, reluctance to try new activities, lying about what campers don’t know or can’t do, and anger at others’ prejudice.

The task for staff members in these cases is to call the group or peer out on their prejudice, then support the fearful individual in assertively describing his or her true self.

Give the camper who fears being judged an opportunity to showcase one’s self, talents, and tenacity. Talent shows, roundtable discussions, and diversity-awareness activities also help prevent judging and any fears associated with having others think something false about the camper.

Looking Stupid

Camp is an ideal setting for any child who fears looking stupid–which is most children–because staff members model an adventurous spirit.

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Related posts:

  1. Kids’ Big Fears, Part II
  2. Manners Matter
  3. The Beauties Of Camp Duties
  4. Homesickness And Acculturation Stress
  5. Am I Oversharing?
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