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Learning to face fears generation after generation
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Amy Choate-Nielsen lists a fear of the dentist among the things she is scared of but must face. - photo by Amy Choate-Nielsen
I overheard my kids talking to each other the other day.

What scares you? my daughter asked her younger brother.

Zombies, he said. What scares you?

Scary noises, she said without hesitation.

The next thing I knew, my son was calling out to me as he held his notebook in one hand and a pen in the other, Mom, how do you spell gaaaaaaaaghreghulrr? he said, making a guttural moan that sounded awfully similar to a scary noise.

I took a guess. Then he asked me how to spell guckguckguckguck and whirrrrrr.

It was quiet for a while after that until my daughter caught on to what was going on and yelled at him for trying to scare her with his words.

I remember another conversation they had in the back of my car recently. The debate was whether mom and dad ever get scared.

Theyre adults; they dont get scared, my son told my daughter. Right, Mom? Have you ever even been scared?

I laughed out loud. Have I been scared? I could write a book about it.

Im scared of spiders, wasps and any other stinging, fast-moving thing. I hesitate at every green light because Im scared other drivers wont stop on the red. Im afraid when my kids jump on trampolines that theyll break their necks. I worry about my parents getting older.

I worry about my son starting kindergarten. Im afraid of heights. Im claustrophobic. I worry every single time my kids get a fever. I get scared when the kids and I are home alone at night. I have a change of clothes on the floor next to my bed every night, in case of an earthquake. I am terrified of the dentist. I insist that my children wear helmets any time they ride anything with wheels. I check that theyre breathing every single night before I go to bed.

I carry mace when I run alone. Im on my guard every time I walk in a dark parking lot. Im scared of superbugs that are resistant to antibiotics, of cancer and of breaking my ankle again. Im scared Ill get rear-ended every time I drive on the freeway. Im scared Ill forget how many breaths (two) to chest compressions (30) if Im ever called upon to do CPR. Were going camping in Glacier National Park next week, and Im scared of the bears.

I could go on. But I didnt want to totally shatter my sons confidence that I am a fearless, strong woman who can keep him safe, so I simply said, Im scared of losing you.

The thing is, I still kill spiders, I still go outside and run away from the wasps, I still drive my car and watch my kids jump on trampolines and send my kids to school. I avoid tight spaces, I only check the kids breathing once, and so far, weve survived the night. I still run, were still going camping and Im still crossing my fingers about the superbugs.

Somewhere along the way, I learned its OK to be scared. Life is full of fear. Its what happens next that matters.

Im trying to teach my children to face their fears.

My grandmother Fleeta, who died before I was born, made a point of exposing her children to opportunities to learn skills she didnt have, such as swimming and playing piano. She never learned to swim the water scared her and she didnt want her children to feel that helplessness.

My daughter is also terrified of drowning. Ironically, her fear makes her tense her body, which makes her sink, which makes it harder to breathe, which reinforces her fear.

She is convinced she will sink like a rock in the deep end of the pool even if there are five lifeguards within a fingers reach.

But still, she goes, enduring swim lessons that push her out of her comfort zone. She practices deep water bobs and rotary breathing and jumping off of the diving board. She faces her fears, and someday, she will have the confidence to save herself in deep water.

Then, one day, when her children ask if she is ever afraid, she might reply, Only of losing you.