Let me start with a little story.
A while back, the Negotiator had an opportunity to run a zip line through a forest. The zip line was easily 100 feet off the ground and ran a loop through seven landing platforms. Awesome, right?
He was nervous, but also really excited at the adventure of zipping through the trees… until we reached the top of the hill where the zip line launched and he saw how high we actually were and how fast the others were going.
(I’ll admit, I was a bit nervous myself; however, recognizing the importance of letting our children engage in dangerous play, I wanted to encourage him to try it out.)
We climbed up to the top platform and had one of the guides walk him through the process, explaining the harness, the hook-up, the launch, etc., so that the Negotiator could see how the whole thing worked.
The Negotiator was still on the fence so the guide strapped himself in to a harness and zipped from one platform to the other to show the Negotiator how easy it all was.
And as soon as the guide took off, the Negotiator started crying.
Here’s the thing, the Negotiator was pretty nervous about the whole thing. But he wasn’t crying because he was afraid.
The Negotiator was crying because he was disappointed in himself.
He realized that, for all that effort, he was unable to control his fear and that this fear was preventing him from doing something he desperately wanted to do. (I know this because that’s pretty much what he told us).
We tried helping him work through this feeling and “be brave” but he simply walked away, the disappointment heavy on his small seven-year old shoulders.
As I watched this sad little boy make his way down the hill, it occurred to me that he had actually been brave, perhaps not brave enough to run the zip line but nevertheless brave for having made the effort, and that counted for something.
How Fear Limits Us
Fear is an emotion caused by a perceived danger (which may or may not actually be real). It is a mechanism that our body uses to protect us.
When we are afraid, we are more cautious and that keeps us safe by driving us towards what we know and recognize and away from what is new or unfamiliar.
Unfortunately, that is also how our fear limits us, because in our cautiousness, we do not go beyond the boundaries of what we already know.
What distinguishes those who are crippled by their fear from those who move past it, is that the latter do not view their boundaries as static, but rather as a temporary stage they can overcome.
And they overcome it with bravery.
Bravery is a quality that we draw upon that enables us to push back on that fear (as if we are persuading our mind to disregard the fear mechanism).
This quality is not something that we turn on and off (i.e. you are either brave or not), but rather a state that we experience to varying degrees depending on the circumstances.
Thus, we may be brave enough to do some things at a given moment in time, but not others. That doesn’t mean we lack courage overall, just that we haven’t amassed enough courage to overcome our fear over that particular event.
But, we can overcome it if we learn how to collect bravery.
Pebbles of Bravery
Most acts requires a certain amount of bravery.
Think about it this way: before you start any given activity, you need to cash in a specific amount of bravery. It’s like paying for the activity.
An easy activity will require a small bundle of bravery, running a zip line through a forest may require a bucket-full.
When children say they are too afraid to do something, what they actually mean is that they don’t have the full stash of bravery that they need for that activity at that time.
That doesn’t mean they never will.
The key is to think of bravery as something we collect over time and what they need to do is simply collect enough bravery to fill their bucket.
How do we collect bravery?
Anytime we confront a fear, no matter how big or small, we collect an act of bravery.
These acts are like pebbles that we deposit into our bucket of bravery.
When your child overcomes a little fears, they collect a little (but no less important) pebbles. When they overcome a big fear, they collect a big pebble.
Over time, they will have amassed a stash of bravery that they can cash in for a new adventure, which will then become a new pebble of bravery for an even greater adventure… and so on and so forth.
Now, this technique works for one important reason.
Children want to be brave, they want to do new and exciting things. But, when their fear overwhelms them, they feel that those new and exciting things are forever out of their reach.
What makes this technique effective is that you are giving your child hope, hope that they will be able to achieve what they so long for.
And hope is the single most effective way to overcome fear.
Now, back to our story.
On that platform, facing the vast jungle before him, the Negotiator simply didn’t have enough pebbles in his bravery bucket for this adventure he so wanted to do. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t collect a pebble of bravery.
He climbed up to that platform, he listened to the guide and asked questions, he watched that ride, all with his heart pounding in his ears. And he faced that fear until the very end.
This was actually a great act of bravery for him, and one that earned him another pebble.
What mattered was for him to see, not the defeat of having been overcome by fear, but the hope of eventually having the courage to zip off into a new adventure.
So, help your child overcome their fears –> think of a recent incident when they were afraid to try something new and see if you can revisit this event with them, focusing on the pebble of bravery that they collected. Also, the next time your child expresses fear about something, help them visualize their stash of bravery and either “draw” upon it or add to it with smaller acts of bravery.
* (image courtesy of Samuel Landete).
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