Your presence as Parent Changes How Children Develop Fear – New Research

Your presence as Parent Changes How Children Develop Fear - New Research

A new study finds that a parent’s presence might impact how a child’s brain responds to fear!

 

Have you ever been in a situation where your child is scared or nervous about something and you want to encourage them to be brave and confident but aren’t sure what to say or what to do? An emerging line of research finds that a parent’s presence alone might be enough to change how your child responds when they are scared or nervous. A new study that was just published in the journal Developmental Science even suggests that a parent’s presence might impact how a child’s brain responds to fear.

 

Research consistently shows that children learn from their parents what is safe versus dangerous and when to be scared. Children learn fear from their parents by associating something neutral with a fear response. For example, children have no reason to be afraid of a hot stove but they learn from their parents to be afraid of it. The first time that they reach their hand toward a hot stove and their parent yells or grabs their hand, they learn to associate the neutral object (a stove) with fear. Researchers refer to this as “fear conditioning”. Children also learn that they are safe by paying attention to their parents. For example, they learn to associate an event that causes fear (such as a new person or place) with safety when they see their parents staying calm. Previous research shows that children are more likely to show brave behavior (that is, approach something they have been taught to fear) if their parents are present. This new study adds to our understanding of this learning process by showing that a parent being present reduces the fear response in the brains of children.

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Study Details

This study included children from 6 to 17 years. The children were placed in a brain scanner and taught to associate random shapes with a loud, startling noise (see below). The researchers compared the fear response when the parent was present with the child (standing next to the child in the brain scanner and putting a hand on the child’s hand or leg) versus when the parent was not in the room.

 

Study Findings

The researchers found that the children showed less of a response in the amygdala (translation: the amygdala is a part of the brain that is linked to fear) for the loud noise when parents were present before learning the association. This suggests that parents “buffer” the fear response in their children (translation: although the children may still experience fear, their fear response is less intense).

The children also showed a slightly weaker activation of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) while learning a new fear association when their parents were present. This suggests a parent’s presence might also influence how children learn about new fears.

 

Overall Translation

The big takeaway message here is that just your presence as a parent is so important in how your child responds to fear and learns about new fears. This study along with previous research suggests that the simple presence of parents impacts children’s fear response and fear learning.

 

What does this mean for your everyday life? It may mean that your child will be less scared when you are present, particularly if you let them know physically that you are present with them (holding their hand, touching their shoulder or leg, etc). It may also mean that they are less likely to develop new fears when you are present with them. This is a very small study and further research is needed, but it may be empowering for parents to know that their presence does seem to matter.

 

What are some examples of how you might apply this in the real world?

Your child is nervous about starting preschool. So you ask the teacher if you can walk them in on the first day. Just holding their hand and being a calm presence for them may help them feel less nervous.

When your child is scared of something, whether it is dogs, thunderstorms, or putting their head underwater in the pool, help them to gently and gradually face their fears during times that you can be fully present with them.

 

If you want your child to try something new, like going on a roller coaster or jumping off the diving board, offer to do it with them.

If your child is nervous about a sports game or a performance at school, make sure that they see you in attendance (assuming you are able to attend). You can also give them a physical sign of your presence before the game or performance by going up to them and hugging them or patting them on the back.

 

If your child is nervous about a public speaking event or giving a presentation at school, have them practice with you until they are less nervous.

Above all, remember that just your presence alone is powerful— even if you feel like you don’t know what to say or do.

 


Dr. Cara Goodwin, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and mother to four children. She specializes in child development and has spent years researching child psychology and neuroscience and providing therapy for children of all ages and parent training. She is the founder of Parenting Translator, which translates recent scientific research into information that is helpful, relevant, and accurate for parents and caregivers through an Instagram account, a newsletter on Substack, and a blog on Psychology Today. Dr. Goodwin is also a bestselling author of the children’s book, What To Do When You Feel Like Hitting.

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