Mind The Sharks

Childhood summers in Ontario, swimming in lakes with no idea how deep they were, dark, murky water full of things I couldn’t see that moved past my legs. Fish, reeds, boys’ hands – who knew? But all I could think about was sharks. And Orca Killer Whale – remember that flick? The shark image plagued me even in swimming pools. To this day – pathetically embarrassing moment on the horizon now – I still avoid swimming over the grid in the bottom of the pool floor. Because that is where the shark will come out of one day, you know?

By Thora, age 9

I recall going to our nextdoor neighbours’ to watch the launch of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video on MTV together, us kids, while our mothers had coffee. The much-awaited music video felt by far the scariest thing I had seen at that tender young age. The haunting images of walking zombies chasing the school girl were emblazoned in my mind and Vincent Price’s sinister chuckle still takes me back to that night and gives me a shudder.

By far the biggest of all my fears is the dark. Oh don’t worry, I’ve heard all the helpful solutions before. My Dad tried everything – telling me it’s irrational, telling me to sit in the pitch black, telling me off.  Once, he even tried taking me for a walk in a cemetery at night. Nothing worked at all, if anything it made matters worse, and left me screaming louder. I was and still am very afraid of the dark. I find ways round it as an adult and can even go running in the dark on my own if needs must, though my heart is pounding in my chest with panic until I reach the main road which is better lit and has more traffic.

I say all this because I know the difficulty fears can present. How can we help children cope with what they feel fearful about? Or adults? Especially the things others might view as “irrational” to feel afraid of (thinking sharks and swimming pools here)? What may help some children and adults, mindful that one-size-never-fits-all, identify what plans they can make to approach situations which include what they fear?

Here are some steps that one could choose to try which may help in some circumstances:
• Have a mantra; my Dad taught my youngest child to say “Scary thoughts, disappear.” She chants it to herself, even imitating her Granddad’s Dublin accent perfectly.
• “Phone a friend” – not literally, but think how those around you can help. My son and I are resident chief spider catchers as the rest of our family have “spider issues”. For me, with the dark, I prefer being with someone else where possible. Recently, I had to walk alone 15 minutes in the dark to collect my car after work, and messaging a friend back and forth kept me company and kept me distracted on my way to the mechanic’s.
• Breathe. Can be a simple way to refocus and also make sure that all important oxygen is still getting to your brain in adequate quantities to help with clear thinking.
• Self-talk can help if you are able to say “this will only last a few minutes” or “nearly finished” (can help in the dentists’ chair – ugh!) – or whatever. Not everyone is good at this, but if it helps, it is worth a try.
• Self-compassion – just be kind to yourself, if you don’t have to do it – whatever the ‘it’ is – then choose not to. Allow children this get-out card, too.  I need to keep working on this one personally, and you may need support from others to let yourself back out guilt-free, but opting out can be the easiest way to feel safer. There will always be next time, whatever it is, and you might be feeling braver that day than you do right now. And it’s okay to feel less brave.

The final point about fears is that we all have them, and although they feel overwhelming sometimes, fears are feelings and feelings subside, eventually.