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Scare Your Fears Away
I got some good advice from a young friend the other day. I met R. a few months ago, when his parents asked me if I could help him with his fears. R. is six and he had been having scary times at school and at home. We played lots of fun games--mostly involving me pretending to be very scared of him. He would make a noise and I would hide under pillows or grab his stuffed animals for protection. This made him giggle like crazy. Sometimes he would scare me again, being the powerful one instead of the helpless one, and sometimes he would reassure me, being the comforting one instead of the one needing comfort. Another game we played was for me to say, "Oh please don't jump off your bed, it's too dangerous, I can't watch!" Then he would make me watch while he jumped. This game helped him develop physical confidence and see for himself that he was quite brave.

After a few months of these kinds of games things got much better for R. at school, though he still had fearful periods at home for a while longer. When he was consistently feeling confident and powerful at home and at school, I asked him if he had any advice for other children who might be feeling fearful and anxious. I have learned from a wonderful therapist, Michael White, of Adelaide, Australia, that it's a great help for children to shift from being victims of their symptoms to being experts and consultants.

Well, R. wasn't interested in telling me what to suggest to other children I might meet who had the same struggles as he did. But when I told him that sometimes I had trouble falling asleep because I was worried, he was full of ideas. At first he gave me back the same ideas I had suggested for him, like taking deep breaths or counting backwards. But then he told me that he had some new ideas and I should write him a letter telling him about my fears and he would write back. So of course I did, and he dictated a letter to his mother to send to me. R. wrote, "I have an idea for your Fear. DON'T LET YOUR FEAR BOSS YOU AROUND!! I have another idea for not being scared. Say to your fear, 'FEAR DON'T BOSS ME AROUND, GO TO SOMEBODY ELSE AND I DON'T EVEN LIKE YOU, YOU'RE NOT MY FRIEND, AND I'LL SCARE YOU FEAR FOREVER UNTIL YOU GO AWAY!' Larry, I have something else to tell you too. Say all that real serious."

This was, as I said, great advice. It wasn't anything he and I had talked about, but was a brand-new strategy that he developed on his own. I never would have learned about it if I hadn't asked for his help (instead of me being the "expert" and him being the one who needed help.) When I next saw R. after getting the letter, he demonstrated for me what he meant by "say that real serious." He put his hands on his hips and spoke in a strong voice--a voice I had never heard from him before--telling Fear to leave us both alone. He had me practice that stance and that voice until I got it right. And guess what, it works! I had expected this letter-writing tactic to be therapeutic for him, since we all learn best by teaching someone else. But I hadn't expected it to be so helpful to me. We might not like to admit it, but grown-ups often let our fears boss us around, not just kids. I loved how R. discovered on his own that the way we stand and the tone of voice we use and the way we confront our fears makes a huge difference in whether we live our own lives or let fear scare us into a corner.

Larry Cohen
phone: 617-713-0568

email: larjack@playfulparenting.com

Larry Cohen
1680A Beacon Street | Brookline, MA 02445 | Tel/Fax: 617-713-0568

email: larjack@playfulparenting.com