I hate flying — from the tight seats, to the skinny aisles, to the unsettling knowledge that my only reasonable exit is in a terminal thousands of miles away. Just the sound of a cabin door closing makes me sweat through my shirt.
This fear has never actually caused me to cancel a trip (it just fills me with dread for months leading up to the event). But now I have a one-year-old, and I’m nervous my toddler will notice my anxiety the next time we take a flight. Suddenly, the only thing scarier than flying is the possibility of my daughter inheriting this same debilitating fear.
As it turns out, passing my fear on to my child is a legitimate concern. Dr. Carl Weems, Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Iowa State University, points out that there are many “pathways” for a child to establish a fear or phobia, one of which being the observation of someone with a fear. “Children may acquire fears by observing actions of salient others, such as parents, caregivers, siblings, or friends. For example, a child who sees his or her mother react fearfully to a dog may begin to model this reaction.”
In fact, my fear of tight spaces began when I was a kid, watching my own mother. My mom has always been brave and no-nonsense, one of those assertive single parents who would gladly talk back to a rude neighbor or stand up to a coworker. But when we got into elevators she’d get quiet, watching the floor numbers rise. In crowded rooms, the first thing she’d do was check for the exits. Over time, knowing my mom was concerned about tight spaces made me nervous about them, too. Suddenly flying, in particular, seemed unreasonably risky.
But showing a child some fearfulness doesn’t mean they’ll adopt the same worry. For one thing, anxiety has a genetic component, so a child may or may not be prone to anxiety, no matter what those around them do or say. “Twin studies suggest that about a third of the variance in childhood anxiety symptoms is accounted for by heritable influences,” Weems points out.
Plus, Sheryl Ziegler, Psy.D, a Denver-based clinical psychologist, says it’s more likely that children will develop a fear from their own experience. “For example, toddlers love dogs; then one day they get bitten by a dog, and all of a sudden what was previously neutral in terms of anxiety and maybe positive in terms of affection now is conditioned to elicit a fear response,” Ziegler says.
Even still, Psychologist Dr. Andrea Loeb, owner of Miami-based South Miami Psychology Group, says it’s important for parents to pay attention to what they say about fear and anxiety: “It’s kind of like body image. We want parents, even if they’re feeling unhappy with the way their body looks, or if they’re feeling fat, to not talk about it so much. If they need to talk about it, do so out of earshot of their children.”
But even if a parent can avoid mentioning their phobia, there’s no guarantee a child won’t notice a parent’s nervous body language, the way I observed my mom watching the elevator numbers. “The truth is that kids watch us all the time. They’re keen observers from a very early age,” Ziegler says.
It seems that a more honest, direct route is better practice. In fact, talking about anxiety with a child could be a good opportunity to set an example for managing fears. “You can explain to your child that you have a fear and that you have also learned ways to manage your anxiety,” says Dr. Helen Egger, chief medical and scientific officer of Little Otter, mental health care with specialized focus on children 0-14. “Our goal in raising children is not to prevent them from experiencing anxiety, but rather giving them the tools to manage anxiety.”
Philadelphia-based psychologist Valerie Braunstein suggests parents model self-soothing techniques. “You can say, ‘I’m scared right now. And that’s OK. But really I’m safe, and I’m going to take some deep breaths and I’m going to exhale longer than my inhale. And this helps me,’” she says.
Further, experts agree that anxious parents shouldn’t avoid the thing they’re afraid of. For one thing, Loeb explains that avoidance will only make a person’s fear worse. “Our brain wants us to avoid the things that scare us. But actually, when we avoid something, it reinforces to our brain, ‘Oh, wow. If we’re avoiding it, it must really be a feared object.’”
Plus, when parents try to avoid their fear, sooner or later their kids will probably notice. Loeb says clients who suffer from claustrophobia often try to avoid elevators. “But then what happens if they have to avoid elevators so much that the child never goes in an elevator? Then their child has to break their own fear of that.”
“We’re talking about something that is typically safe. And [your parent’s] bias becomes your bias because you start to avoid it,” Braunstein says. “So then you never have the opportunity to learn and you never have the opportunity to habituate the experience. So, you start to associate avoidance with safety.”
For me, avoiding flying is easy. Between the pandemic and a busy toddler, traveling isn’t something we do often. Maybe the right thing to do is face my fears and book some flights, bringing my daughter along for the ride. But it’s easier said than done. Any time I log onto an airline’s website I think about those tiny airplane seats and the locked cabin doors, and before I know it, I’ve closed out of the webpage and convinced myself we don’t have time to take a trip anyway. But I can’t avoid my fear of tight spaces forever.
This was made clear a few weeks ago, when my daughter closed herself in my closet. I was folding laundry in the bedroom when I heard a door slam. The sound brought up images of airtight plane doors shutting, and my palms immediately got sweaty. I rushed to the closet and found my daughter standing right inside the door, looking up at me.
“Are you okay? Are you okay?” I said, picking her up and holding her close. But then, hearing the nervous tone of my own voice, I loosened my grip a bit. I wanted to rock my daughter and comfort her but it occurred to me that maybe she didn’t need comforting. Maybe my worried response was more traumatizing than a few seconds alone in a (relatively large) closet.
I knew better than to react so strongly but couldn’t help it. I guess that’s the thing about fears and anxieties: they don’t let us act rationally. I only hope that my reaction wasn’t enough to spark a fear for my daughter.
Days later, I wondered if I should make a rule of always locking the closet door so my busy toddler wouldn’t wander in again. But Egger says a situation like this is the perfect way for me to get some exposure (which can be a critical phase of fear recovery), plus, it’s a good opportunity to help my daughter not fear small spaces.
“Turn the light on and off, demystify being in the closet,” Egger says. “If you do not want her to go into the closet and shut the door, you could say: ‘When you were in the closet with the door closed, I did not know where you were and that made me worried. Let’s keep the door open so you can hear me.’”
Egger acknowledges that, in the end, it’s a parent’s decision to take their child to explore closets, or go on planes, or even pet dogs. It’s a parent’s choice to decide what is a real threat and what is imagined. “I would just gut-check whether you are putting barriers up because of real fears or amplified fear. Then I would make decisions to keep your child safe, and yourself sane, and then not worry about the rest.”
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