ERIC Identifier: ED341888
Publication Date: 1991-12-31
Author: Robinson, Edward H., III - Rotter, Joseph C.
ERIC Clearinghouse on Counseling and Personnel Services Ann Arbor MI.
Coping with Fears and Stress. ERIC Digest.
Children's fears can have a self-preserving and motivational quality or have
an inhibiting or debilitating effect. According to Morris & Kratochwill
(1983) 4% to 8% of all children in the United States will receive clinical
treatment for fear-related disorders. The numbers of untreated population often
run as much as two times those of the treated population. In a recent survey of
teachers in American international schools, the vast majority of teachers
believed that children were adversely affected by fears and that as many as 50%
were not functioning effectively at some time because of fear-related concerns
(Robinson, Rotter, Fey, & Robinson, 1991).
ENVIRONMENT VS. HEREDITY
The controversy of heredity versus
environment is always an issue in examining the development of attributes in
children. Kagan (1986) has been engaged in a longitudinal study of children from
birth to age 8. His findings suggest that children may have some inherent
predisposition toward fearfulness. Some children are much more prone to fearful
behaviors from birth than other children. He also noted that over a period of 8
years some children who were more fearful at birth became less so and some who
were less fearful became more so. This suggests that, although there may be a
hereditary link involved in the development of fear, environmental factors also
play a large part in the development of children's fears. Although Kagan's
research suggests that some children will be prone to react more to fear
objects, it is generally agreed that all children will exhibit fears and, while
many are transitory in nature, the fears appear at about the same age for most
children (Morris & Kratochwill, 1983; Robinson, Robinson, Whetsell, & Weber, 1988).
Fear is the anticipation of or awareness of
exposure to injury, pain, or loss. A fear object, then, is any object or
conceptualization that the child anticipates might cause injury, pain, or loss.
The degree of fear is related to the child's perception of vulnerability. In the
fear cycle, the child perceives an object or concept, which is compared with
one's sense of self and one's personal resources. The child may experience this
with a sense of power and a feeling of confidence (affect); the child may
realize that he or she has the resources to deal effectively with the source of
potential threat (cognition); the child may get butterflies (physiological
response); and then the child may take some action (behavioral response). As a
result of the action, the child again examines the potential threat of the fear
object. The degree to which the child's action lessens the potential threat
influences the child's perception of the fear object. The more children
successfully handle such situations, the less vulnerable they may feel.
Conversely, the less successful they are, the more vulnerable children may feel.
Vulnerable children may express more concerns about an array of fear objects and
may generally approach new situations with greater trepidation. Some children
may be generally successful but maintain "unreasonable fears" with regard to a
particular fear object.
FOUNDATIONS OF SUCCESSFUL COPING
Children who have
confidence in their ability to master and control events and challenges in their
lives are less vulnerable to fear. These children have a sense of personal
power. In contrast, a child who feels helpless in the face of danger is
vulnerable to fears. Related to power are these three important constructs:
Self-worth. Children who feel good about themselves, hold themselves in high
esteem, and experience success in meeting normal developmental tasks have well
developed concepts of self-worth. Based on this success identity, they are more
likely to have the confidence needed to explore and attempt new strategies to
Security. Children who have adults in their lives who care for and encourage
them develop a sense of security. Because they have allies on whom they can
count, they are able to build supportive interpersonal relationships with peers
Control. Children who have been given some autonomy in decision making learn
they have a degree of control over their lives. They learn to assess their
strengths and weaknesses and accept that coping with dilemmas in life is a
natural part of growing up.
Children can be adversely affected by disasters and
terrors (Figley & McChubbin, 1983; Terr, 1981; Trautman, 1987). A traumatic
event in a child's life can lead to fear-related problems that interfere with
the child's normal functioning. A child who otherwise is functioning on a high
level with regard to the concepts of control, self-worth, and security may
develop reactions to specific fear objects in this way.
EFFICACY OF CURRENT APPROACHES
Counselors approach work
with children on issues of stress anxiety and fear from the particular
theoretical background to which they might adhere. The literature suggests that
both insight and behavioral approaches can work with some children (Miller,
Barrett, Hampe, & Noble, 1972). However, each approach does not seem to work
with all children. This suggests that while effective, each of the current
approaches to counseling children regarding their fears has some limitations.
Since the development of counseling models has not yet reached the point of
explaining all phenomenon it is important that we continue to develop more
comprehension models and organize intervention strategies into a systematic
approach that can be effective with a broad range of children under varying
Counselors need a multifaceted
delivery system that integrates strategies along a continuum for primary
prevention of disturbances related to fear and anxiety. The model suggested here
posits three levels of intervention. The first level focuses on developmental
guidance and counseling activities designed for all children to develop a sense
of control, security and self-worth and activities that help children's
exploration of normative childhood fears in order to "gauge it to the power of
proper reaction" (Hall, 1897).
The second level of prevention should focus on higher risk children. Children
who have been exposed to traumatic events in life are more susceptible to
developing fear-related problems. Such events can be collective, such as
Hurricane Hugo in South Carolina in 1989 or the San Francisco earthquake of the
same year, or they can be of more limited scope affecting several children or
Finally, those children who are experiencing fear disturbances are the target
of the third level of intervention. The time to prevent the downward cycle is
when the child is first experiencing a lack of effective coping regarding fear
The goal of developmental intervention is to assist all children in making
successful transitions in meeting life's challenges in the present and to build
skills, knowledge and awareness to be successful in the future. In this case it
means helping children develop successful strategies in coping with normative
aspects of fear and stress and promoting the child's sense of control, security
and self-worth that generally lead to successful coping.
Knowing information about normative fears in childhood allows the counselor
to design activities that help children explore these fears and to develop an
understanding of coping strategies for meeting their needs in dealing with them.
The second developmental approach is one many school counselors may already
be using, working to help children develop a better sense of control over the
life course by providing activities on decision making, helping children develop
a sense of their strengths through success experiences and increasing a sense of
self-worth by providing activities that stress interpersonal skills.
Children who have experienced personal terrors or disasters or are
experiencing a high level of stress are more likely to develop coping problems
related to fears and stress. Individual instances related to moving, changing
schools, failure, loss of a close relative, divorce, or bodily injury often
place children in a vulnerable position in life. Disasters such as earthquakes,
hurricanes, or acts of violence such as mass shootings or war affect large
numbers of children at the same time. In such situations the counselor will wish
to target these children, parents, teachers for special intervention. Group
counseling activities that help children explore self in relationship to their
life events are most appropriate. Consultation with parents and teachers on the
signs of post traumatic stress symptoms and activities they can do to help
children put such events into perspective is another important intervention
strategy for high-risk children.
Helping children who are experiencing an inability to cope constitutes the
third level of prevention. A summary of the research indicates that children who
are helped as soon as possible regarding fear-related problems are most likely
to develop ways to overcome those difficulties (Robinson, Rotter, Fey, &
Robinson, 1991). When fear-related problems do surface early intervention
prevents more severe problems.
In counseling the fearful child the first stage should be devoted to
providing a cathartic release for the child, validating the child's fear (the
child's fears, no matter how mystical or imaginary, are real to the child) and
establishing a relationship characterized by trust and open communication.
The second stage deals with assessing the child's relationship with the fear.
Does it seem that the child's difficulty focuses specifically on one fear object
or multiple objects? Does the fear seem to be situationally specific or more
generalized? Does the child seem to have a strong or weak sense of control,
In stage three the counselor may choose systematic desensitization, cognitive
restructuring, cognitive self-control, relaxation training or a combination. Or
the counselor might choose a life skills training approach.
The final and fourth stage is evaluation. How well do the strategies employed
help the child improve?
Figley, C., & McChubbin, H. (1983). Stress
and the family (Vol. 2): Coping with catastrophe. New York: Brunner/Mazel.
Hall, G. S. (1897). A study of fears. American Journal of Psychology, 6,
Kagan, J. (1986). Childhood development. Paper presented at the University of
South Carolina, Columbia.
Miller, L., Barrett, C., Hampe, E., & Noble, H. (1972). Comparison of
reciprocal inhibition, psychotherapy and waiting list control for phobic
children. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 79, 269-279.
Morris, R., & Kratochwill, T. (1983). Treating children's fears and
phobias. New York: Pergamon.
Robinson, E. H., Robinson, S. L., Whetsell, M., & Weber, A. (1988). A
study of children's fears. Journal of Humanistic Education and Development, 27,
Robinson, E. H., Rotter, J. C., Fey, M., & Robinson, S. L. (1991).
Children's fears: Toward a preventive model. The School Counselor, 38, 187-202.
Terr, I. C. (1981). Trauma: Aftermath: The young hostages of Chowchilla,
Psychology Today, 15(4), 29-30.
Trautman, D. (1987). When disaster strikes. International Quarterly, 5(4),