Scientists have been trying to unlock what turns a happy kid into a scared kid for decades. What is fear? Is fear nature or nurture? At what stage in brain development do kids become afraid of the dark? Why are infants afraid of slithering reptiles they’ve never before encountered?
Researchers have used some pretty out-there methods to answer these questions. Think terrifying babies with pictures of spiders and snakes or coaxing infants to crawl over a suspended glass surface and into their mothers’ arms. Fortunately, these odd experiments have produced some fascinating insights into the origins and functions of fear—which may come in handy for parents dealing with monsters in the closet, or a crying toddler at the zoo.
How Your Child’s Brain Processes Fear
Whether presented with innate or learned fears, Norrholm says that our brains operate along two neural pathways: the low road, which causes an immediate reaction, and the high road, in which your brain assesses the situation. “The low-road circuitry goes from your senses—your eyes and ears—to the amygdala, then to your muscles, adrenal glands, and spinal cord,” he says. “So if you’re confronted with a growling grizzly, it activates your fight-or-flight response. If you hear a balloon pop or a door slam, you get startled—before you realize you heard a noise and got startled.” That realization near the end of the balloon pop is the “high road”. It runs through the brain’s cortical regions, which bring logic and experience into the mix. “They’ll come online and say, ‘hey, that’s a non-venomous snake’ or ‘that’s a harmless barn spider; no need to panic,’” Norrholm explains.
Little kids are more prone to freaking out when afraid because their fight or flight responses are fully formed, but their “high road” neural pathways are still a work in progress. They may feel the same stress as an adult when they hear a balloon pop, but lack the ability to quickly realize it’s just a balloon and move on.
“Preschoolers’ thinking is very concrete and reactionary,’” Norrholm says. “But as they get older, their frontal cortex becomes more developed and they learn through life experiences, so it becomes easier to overcome childhood fears. Take monsters under the bed or noises outside her bedroom window. As the child grows, she’s able to realize that monsters aren’t real and the noise is just branches brushing against the house.”
Fear: Nature Or Nurture?
Scientists have identified two types of fear. There are innate fears, which we’re born with, and learned fears, which we pick up along the way. The vast majority of fears are learned, but studies suggest that all mammals—from humans down to mice—have only two basic, innate fears: fear of falling and fear of loud noises.
“Although a few others often get categorized as innate, such as fear of the dark or fear of creepy-crawly things, those are actually acquired after birth,” says Seth Norrholm, a psychiatrist at Emory University in Atlanta. “Fear of falling and fear of loud noises are the only two that, no matter what age we come into contact with them, will elicit a fear response because of our innate neural circuitry…a loud noise means, ‘Pay attention! You could be harmed! And your brain knows that going over a cliff or waterfall will cause harm. So you react.”
The gazillion other fears that keep children up nights are rarely innate. Instead, most researchers suspect that fears are learned in various ways. “Fear learning is associated with the amygdala, the part of the brain that’s also involved in experiencing and perceiving fear,” says Stefanie Hoehl, a neuroscientist at the University of Vienna. “This applies to both direct fear learning through conditioning—say, if you’re bitten by a spider—and social fear learning, which is learning fear from observing other people’s fear expressions.”
One area of contention among scientists is whether children have an innate or learned fear of spiders, snakes, and other so-called “ancestral fears.” Some researchers claim that these fears are indeed innate. Hoehl is not convinced. “Primates, including humans, have a predisposition or ‘preparedness’ for developing fears of ancestral threats, including spiders, snakes, heights, closed spaces, and fire,” Hoehl allows, but she doesn’t go so far as to say that these fears are baked in. Last year, she published a study that demonstrated this in six-month-olds. She showed the babies pictures of spiders, snakes, flowers, and fish and then measured their pupil dilation after each photograph (before kids can talk, pupil dilation is just about the only way to determine fear). Their pupils duly dilated most when shown spiders and snakes.
“Snakes and spiders evoke physiological arousal without requiring prior learning experiences,” she explains. “This arousal likely contributes to the quickness with which humans and other primates acquire fear of these animals.”
How To Use Childhood Fears To Your Advantage
Because kids usually outgrow childhood fears, parents shouldn’t be overly concerned when they manifest. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore or dismiss your child’s fears, either. “You want to figure out where it’s coming from and whether it’s based in reality or imagination,” Norrholm advises. “If your kid is afraid of a spider turning up in her bedroom say, ‘yes, there are spiders in the woods by our house and you might see them now and again, but they are nothing to be afraid of.’” But if the fear stems from something she saw on TV, such as a jumbo, child-gobbling spider, assure her that these threats probably aren’t real.
And try to keep calm when faced with your own irrational fears—because kids pick up on everything. “Parents should be mindful of the influence their behavior has even on infants,” Hoehl says. “Even if you do not directly communicate your fears to your child, the child may pick up on your emotional expressions and learn from you.”
In fact, parents can use learned fear behaviors to their advantage. If you want to discourage your children from touching an electrical outlet, appearing terrified of outlets may not be a bad tactic. On the other hand, if you want your kid to love dogs, yelping in fear when the neighbor’s pooch passes by is probably not a step in the right direction. “Keep in mind that fear is an adaptive behavior,” Norrholm says. “So while our fight-or-flight response can be triggered by things we don’t need to be afraid of, it’s also very helpful for things we should be afraid of.”
“We don’t want kids to be overly afraid or totally unafraid—we want them to be able to manage their fears.”