When Your Child Goes Overboard: Fears and Compassionate Concerns

Updated: Dec 27, 2018

By Nancy M. Robinson, Ph.D.

When Johnny was 5, he was greatly disturbed by the accounts of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Not only was he deeply sympathetic to the orphaned children and their uprooted families, but desperately fearful of an earthquake and radiation dangers happening here at home. Living in Seattle, as we do, I didn’t regard this as particularly unreasonable. But why does he experience distant and unlikely events in this way when his schoolmates are blissfully unaware? What can I do to help?

Bright kids not only experience different fears than their age-mates, they encounter them earlier than expected. These differences are in part because some bright children endure greater intensities of feeling every day than other children do. They feel emotions keenly, have a hard time getting past them, and suffer for others with a remarkable sense of injustice.

Second, their high intelligence creates asynchrony of unusually mature understanding coupled with inevitably limited experience. The greater their ability, the greater the gap. They can grasp beyond their years the scary implications of events and ideas but haven’t lived through enough of them to acquire the calluses that ordinarily come gradually with growing up.

Even as babies, gifted youngsters show fears more typical of older children. Stranger anxiety comes early, for example, as does the knowledge that death is irreversible. They absorb the news that now comes to us 24/7—the uprisings, atrocities, and losses—but they do so without context of distance and scale and naturally fear that those same events might happen to their family. We adults have—at least vicariously—been through assassinations, wars, floods, and terrorist explosions, and we know that even these awful events will end and that (most of) life goes on no matter how horrific things are. Our children don’t have this optimism; they can’t just put things aside. That’s what I mean about their lacking calluses.

What’s a Parent to Do?

Your job isn’t to make the feelings go away; it’s to help your children experience their genuine feelings without being overwhelmed. Assist with the growing process; don’t squelch it.

Here are some ideas:

Keep your own perspective

  • Share their concerns with equanimity; model your calm and compassion about what’s troubling them.

  • Don’t expect them to put a damper on the feelings too soon.

  • Don’t tell them that these things can’t happen to them unless they really can’t. Rather, teach them about very low probabilities. Math to the rescue!

Do some judicious censoring

  • Limit how much news you watch while they’re awake and refrain from making the day’s catastrophes the frequent subject of dinner table conversation.

  • Don’t, however, eliminate all exposure. Oppressive censorship just sends the fears underground, and, furthermore, you do want to let those calluses develop in due time!

Use information to put a fearful situation in perspective

  • Investigate factual information about the situation. If it’s an earthquake, for example, then this is a good time to study earthquakes. Why do they happen? Different kinds? How do we measur