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Helping Children to Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway

So, I went zip-lining in the redwoods recently. Imagine me with hands on hips, like a cowboy in chaps, cooling surveying the toe of my boot with a frown, while I say this. Yep. Nice view. No big deal.

zip lining without fear
Not me ! My form was, um, not nearly so elegant.

Sonoma Canopy Tours, in Occidental, includes seven zip lines (long cables from one tree to another), a spiral staircase up a tree trunk, and a couple of rope bridges (like in Tarzan). You navigate this obstacle course several hundred feet in the air, literally blowing in the wind and ducking tree branches when you’re not standing on a swaying yard-wide platform along with seven other people who have the annoying tendency to move or ask you to let go of a branch to let them pass.

High atop the first tree, one of the gentlemen in my group asked our tour guide, “Do you ever have someone completely freak out up here?” The guide answered, “Every day. Almost every tour. Only a small piece of what I do is teaching people how to zip-line. “ He looked at me. Perhaps my white-knuckled hold on the cable was giving him a clue that he had a possible freak-out candidate on this tour too. “Most people come through just fine, though. They trust me to keep them safe.”

I realized in that moment that I did feel safe with him. It was that steady eye gaze that did it, the calm deliberation of his movements, his deadpan expression when he told a joke or two. He was serious, but completely relaxed, his body language showing us there was nothing to be afraid of, and his eyes keeping us all steady in his expectation that we were all going to achieve what we’d set out to do. And we did. Every one of us conquered our fears and made it through the course.

It occurred to me that there was a lesson here about how we help children through their fears. Children, you know, have heart-pounding moments frequently. It’s hard for grownups to relate, because children’s fears often are around things that adults know are imaginary. But if you poo-poo their fears, or try to tease them, or just throw them into situations when they’re not ready, you can increase the fear and even traumatize them into being unable to face the smallest risk.

What children need when they are afraid is the steady gaze of a trusted adult. They deserve to be taken seriously, at the same time the adult expresses absolute certainty, with a body that is relaxed and confident, that they will be able to face their fear and survive it. Once one fear has been faced and beaten, the next is not so scary. And the next thing you know, they’re flying through the treetops, yodeling.

No, I didn’t yodel…more of a “Yeehaw!”

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