Adoption, Children in Foster Care, Education, Foster Parenting, Make a Difference MondaysFeb. 15, 2016

Make a Difference Monday | Understanding How Fear Impacts a Child

What do you do when you are afraid? Do you ball up your fists ready to fight? Or maybe you take off running as fast you can to get away from the danger. Perhaps you freeze not able to move a muscle or think rationally.


What if you experienced chronic fear putting you on a constant state of alert? Would you be able to handle even the most basic tasks of life? How well would you relate to others? Could you even contemplate making plans for the future besides how you can survive?

Often we identify bad behavior in a child as hyper-activity or defiance when in fact it might be hyper-vigilance or fear driven.

In hyper-vigilance, there is a perpetual scanning of the environment to search for sights, sounds, people, behaviors, smells, or anything else that is reminiscent of threat or trauma. The individual is placed on high alert in order to be certain danger is not near. Hyper-vigilance can lead to a variety of obsessive behavior patterns, as well as producing difficulties with social interaction and relationships. (Wikipedia)

A child from a hard place many times have lived in a state of chronic fear, maybe for years. The result is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

A study published in 2005 found that foster children are almost twice as likely to suffer from PTSD than U.S. war veterans

Hyper-activity or hyper-vigilence?

Recently our three-year-old son has been defiant, hyper, and unsettled. My initial response when he acts like this, I am sad to admit, is to correct his bad or unwanted behavior sometimes with anger.

But I began to think through some possible fear-based triggers. One strong possibility is the fact that several of our neighbors have moved or are moving. Even though our son is only three, he notices. And he asks questions about if we need to move.

Why would this be a fear of his? He has lived with us in the same house for now three years. He was only eight-months-old when he was placed with us.

However during his first eight months of his life he never had his own place. His young unmarried parents moved from one relative’s home to another.

Studies show that the first several months of a child’s life, including in utero, wire their brain in ways that later in life implicit memories cause fear-based responses.

Understanding my son’s beginning helps me to step back and consider whether his behavior is more hyper-vigilence than hyper-activity or outright rebellion.

Dr. Karyn Purvis talks in this video about the importance of understanding how deep the fear level is for children from a hard place:

How to respond to hyper-vigilence in a child

  • As discussed, understand the toll of fear on your child.
  • Learn to recognize fear in your child – As Dr. Purvis points out in the video, does the child clench his fists; are his eyes dilated or breathing shallow? These are some tangible signs that your child is reacting to his environment from a place of fear.
  • Regulate stressors – Stress elevates cortisol in our bodies. This leads to hyper-activity. As a care-giver remember this and preempt stressors when possible. They are never too young to teach deep breathing skills, pressure points, etc.

By helping your child feel safe, making his or her world more predictable, and teaching better coping skills, you can actually optimize cortisol levels and allow your child’s brain to work better.

– Dr. Karyn Purvis, The Connected Child

  • Help with transitions – Speaking of stressors, transitions contribute to stress. Transitions from one activity to another; from one location to another; from one phase of life to another are all examples of transitions. I hear parents of small children saying all the time telling them that they are leaving in “five minutes”.
  • Teach your child how to trust rather than fear – the longer a child lives in fear the more it becomes their natural response to life. Earn a child’s trust by:
    showing consistent emotional warmth and affection
    • Offering positive praise often
    • Responding attentively and kindly to your child’s words
    • Interacting playfully
    • Being sensitive to your child’s tolerance to sounds
    • Respecting your child’s need for personal space
    • Using simple words they understand
  • Allow your child to talk about his fears – I know this seems counter-intuitive, but the more they talk about their fears, concerns, even trauma, the better their brains integrate. As their brain integrates, they develop the ability to respond to their environment in a more rational manner rather than always in a fight, flight, or freeze mode.

Children whose parents talk with them about their experiences tend to have better access to the memories of those experiences. Parents who speak with their children about their feelings have children who develop emotional intelligence and can understand their own and other people’s feelings more fully.

– Daniel J. Siegel, The Whole-Brain Child

You can learn more about how fear impacts a child by reading books like The Connected Child: Bring hope and healing to your adoptive family and The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. Also, more videos like the one above are available at

What other signs can you recognize in your child that he is responding with fear?

Kenneth Camp Kenneth Camp

I am a longtime Austinite. Married my beautiful wife over 25 years ago. Adopted our son September 2012. Currently a writer and loving it. Previous jobs and careers include project management, missionary, and pastor. I enjoy sports (both watching and playing), traveling, reading, digging in dirt and hanging with my friends and family. Read more from Kenneth at!

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