Emotionally-Literate Parenting: The Power of Helping Kids Name Their Fears | 3 Min Read

“Is Bob dead?” asked my 3-year-old, poking the housefly on the windowsill.

“Yes,” said his 5-year-old sister. “But there are always more Bobs. Let’s put this one in the trash and say goodbye.”

Bob, in his multiple incarnations, has lived with us since the summer my daughter turned 2. A fly landed on her face, and she screamed. She continued to scream every time she heard a buzzing noise until I introduced her to “Bob the Fly.” Let’s give the fly a name! And a personality! A favorite color, a favorite food, a reason for visiting our house. It was a desperate parenting hack.

It worked.

When multiple flies visit the house, she tells me Bob has brought along cousins. Sometimes she leaves scraps of food on the table for our guests. Once she caught me with a fly swatter and gave me a stern look. “That won’t hurt Bob, will it? Because Bob would never hurt us.”

So much of my parenting comes down to some version of Bob the Fly: First, you name it. Name the emotion. Name the fear. If we can name it, we can talk about it. Or as Fred Rogers said, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting and less scary.”

How to motivate older kids without using rewards, punishment or fear. (No, really.)

It is not always easy for kids to name their Big Feelings. A few days after we brought her baby brother home from the hospital, my then-2-year-old daughter had what we now simply refer to as “The Tantrum.” After the storm subsided, she sat in a stupor on the stairs. “Do you feel mad?” I asked. Nothing. “Do you feel sad?” Nothing.

“Are you scared?” her dad ventured.

She looked up, burst into tears and crawled into my lap for comfort — the first time she had let me touch her all day. We had found the right word.

The miracle of Netflix means that, when we are watching a movie or a television show, the kids and I can fast-forward to make sure “bad people” do not win in the end, and then return to scary parts, assured of their transience. And the miracle of memory means we can rewind our thoughts, recall those times when we were afraid — and remember how we made it through.

The older my children get, the more I can remind them of all the times they have walked toward their fears rather than away from them. Like the time my daughter approached a terrifying tunnel slide, repeating quietly to herself, “I will be brave. I will be brave. I will be brave.”

Brave is a label we have embraced. For my daughter’s birthday, my husband got her a stopwatch, so she could time herself being courageous. Need to go into the dark closet to get your shoes? You’ve been brave for 14 seconds! It’s a trick I now employ when I stare glumly at my things-I-am-avoiding-but-really-need-to-do list. Can I be brave for the 20 minutes it will take to call the insurance company about a billing error?

Of course, often a child’s bravery needs to last for more than a few seconds or minutes. “The worst time of day is the last lullaby — because that means I am about to be alone for hours in the dark,” my daughter once complained. Well, when you put it that way . . .

Before bed, we often review the sounds she might hear in the night. We name them: the neighbor’s motorcycle, noisy cars, wind shaking the window, a flushing toilet, mom or dad climbing the stairs.

Once, during the third post-bedtime summons, she said: “Want to hear my nighttime safety plan? My music keeps me company, my blanket protects me from monsters and things that bite, my water helps me if I’m thirsty — and if that doesn’t work, I’ll yell for you!” And she does, a lot. And I come, every time. Because life is scary, and she is brave. Brave enough to name her fears and share them with me. Brave enough to borrow my courage until she becomes more sure of her own.

Deborah Farmer Kris

A writer, teacher, parent, and child development expert, Deborah Farmer Kris writes regularly for PBS KIDS for Parents and NPR’s MindShift; her work has been featured several times in The Washington Post; and she is the author of the All the Time picture book series (coming out in 2022) focused on social-emotional growth. A popular speaker, Deborah has a B.A. in English, a B.S. in Education, and an M.Ed. in Counseling Psychology. Mostly, she loves finding and sharing nuggets of practical wisdom that can help kids and families thrive — including her own. You can follow her on Twitter @dfkris, contact her at [email protected], or visit her website: Parenthood365 (https://www.parenthood365.com/)

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