Kids’ Big Fears: Part I

By Chris Thurber

I came home for lunch one day in first grade and the house was empty. As a minute stretched into five and then 15, I became convinced that my mom was gone forever.

Sounds like the start of a therapy session, right?

But being abandoned is a core fear that all humans harbor.

I’m happy to report that my mom did return (stuck in traffic after a haircutting appointment that ran long), and I cried tears of relief between bites of peanut butter and jelly.

I don’t panic anymore when loved ones are late, but I do channel my 6-year-old self when I’m talking a camper down from hysterical homesickness, or talking a camper up a tricky climbing route.

An understanding of kids’ big fears puts all youth-development professionals in a better position to empathize and encourage.

So get ready to dig deep, because some of the time we don’t even realize we’re churning up children’s fears.

Some children are afraid of spiders, snakes, or heights. (Some adults are, too, mind you.) Many specific phobias make biological sense. For example, it’s adaptive to be afraid of standing on the edge of a cliff, because you back off and are, therefore, more likely to survive.

In this article, I’ll not discuss specific phobias. Instead, I’ll focus on core fears.

In my estimation, these include:

• Being judged
• Looking stupid
• Being shamed
• Getting lost
• Losing control
• Being abandoned

There is at least one other core fear as well: dying. For that topic, I’ve invited Scott Arizala to guest-write an article for this column since he has extensive experience working with campers who have terminal illnesses or whose parents have died or are dying. This is a somber topic, to be sure, but an essential one for anyone seriously committed to working with youth from every quarter.

For now, let’s take a look at each of the other core fears in turn, with a special eye toward what the fear might look like at camp, what might generate the fear, and what staff can do to soothe mounting anxieties.

Being Judged
Campers may feel judged for a number of reasons, including their native tongue, country of origin, skin color, body size, and physical skills (or lack thereof).

I’ve spoken to tall campers who don’t play basketball and who fear the obvious questions about why not; obese campers who fear being judged as stupid or un-athletic; British campers who fear the constant requests to “do Harry Potter”; and uncoordinated campers who fear the probable dip in popularity if peers find they cannot swim or throw a baseball.

I’ve even spoken to campers who fear being judged as uncool because they don’t watch TV, and therefore can’t partake in the banter about characters and episodes.

In their hearts, most campers would rather be assessed on their sense of humor and kind behavior toward others, rather than a more obvious characteristic, such as accent, skin color, or body type.

The fear of being judged may be manifested in a number of ways at camp, including withdrawn behavior, reluctance to try new activities, lying about what campers don’t know or can’t do, and anger at others’ prejudice.

The task for staff members in these cases is to call the group or peer out on their prejudice, then support the fearful individual in assertively describing his or her true self.

Give the camper who fears being judged an opportunity to showcase one’s self, talents, and tenacity. Talent shows, roundtable discussions, and diversity-awareness activities also help prevent judging and any fears associated with having others think something false about the camper.

Looking Stupid
Camp is an ideal setting for any child who fears looking stupid--which is most children--because staff members model an adventurous spirit.

However, a fear of looking stupid is the main reason why most campers show reluctance to try a new activity. There is always someone who can do it better...and often several people who are exceptionally good at a given skill, such as diving, tennis, running, or resetting a Rubik’s Cube.

The fear of looking stupid causes campers to denigrate certain activities. “Nah, I don’t do that. It’s stupid.” Or, “Painting is for losers, dude.”

The fear of looking stupid can also force campers into staying with a narrow repertoire of activities, rather than trying new things.

This fear can also be used to ridicule the very children who can perform a skill well--those who look decidedly un-stupid doing it. The child who is a talented dancer might hear, “Nice move, moron.” Or, even more caustic, “Of course he can dance. He’s a fairy.”

Staff members must immediately step in when children are being this unkind to one another. But rather than the predictable lecture + punish sequence, take a step back and ask whether a core fear is generating this type of vituperative comment.

If someone is afraid of looking stupid, both a reprimand about inappropriate behavior as well as an opportunity to get over that fear might be needed.

Whenever staff members are goofy or adventurous, or model healthy risk-taking, they help all campers overcome their fear of looking stupid. Even better are the staffers who can look stupid and laugh it off. Modeling social resiliency is a potent antidote for this fear.

Being Shamed
Campers experience all types of totally natural but potentially embarrassing things at camp. Some girls get their periods for the first time; some boys have wet dreams for the first time; almost everyone misses home; everyone changes clothes in front of one another; and some children won’t dare take some of the risks their peers embrace.

The experience of shame--of being humiliated or disgraced in front of others--is so intensely unpleasant that it can have lasting effects. Whereas fear of looking stupid might dissuade a camper from trying a new activity, shame can dissuade one from ever returning to camp.

Symptoms of shame might resemble the fear of looking stupid, such as withdrawal and reluctance, but it is typically more subtle.

A camper who has been shamed might work hard to cover up the emotion by laughing it off, lashing out at another person, or pretending as if nothing has happened. In reality, the private suffering may be intense.

Staff members should work hard to normalize situations like homesickness and puberty. They should do the best they can, along with the camp health-care staff, to intelligently and discretely shepherd children through their emotional, physical, and cognitive development.

Staff should also ensure that healthy risk-taking embraces the “challenge by choice” philosophy, which encourages young people and gives them the no-shame option of not trying something.

And if ever a staff member witnesses the beginning of shame-inducing behavior, he or she should intervene by redirecting the group and then taking the child aside to help him or her understand what is happening and how best to cope.

Getting Lost
Like other core fears, the fear of getting lost is not unique to young people. It just turns out to be easier for young people to get lost, as we learned from Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel.

By definition, getting lost involves being in a new place (novelty) and not recognizing how to find one’s way (disorientation). Humans respond to novelty in different ways, depending on their temperament. Some people embrace newness; others become anxious.

And to further complicate the situation, young people typically have less worldly experience, so more of the world looks new to them than it would to an adult. Young people also lack the types of sophisticated way-finding skills that older adolescents and adults develop.

With all of these youthful risk factors for getting lost, staff members should work diligently to provide tours of camp, post appropriate signage, and accompany children to remote locations in camp. Staff can, quite literally, address young people’s fear of getting lost by helping them find their way.

Skilled staffers can also teach campers to find their way by showing them how the position of the sun and the stars can help them pinpoint cardinal directions. Orienteering is the perfect programmatic solution to any child’s core fear of getting lost.

Losing Control
It might seem as if young people love losing control, but don’t confuse love of excitement and hyperactivity (two common traits of childhood) with truly losing control.

Not being able to control one’s thoughts, feelings, or behaviors is a truly frightening experience. Think about the last time you felt road rage or the type of frustration that caused you to throw and break something. Now imagine that out-of-control state lasting for more than a few minutes and you have a glimpse of how frightening it can be for a young person to really “lose it.”

Fortunately, well-trained staff members excel at setting limits for campers. In fact, limits are everywhere at camp. Rules are reviewed on the first day (under the euphemistic guise of “orientation”), warning signs are everywhere (such as “No Diving” or “Waterfront Closed”), and etiquette traditions abound, such as walking in a straight line or keeping elbows off the meal table.

Each of these safe limits prevents children from losing some measure of control.

Said differently, camps prevent any regression to Lord of the Flies by having rules in place and employing adults to enforce those rules.

In an early scene from William Golding’s Nobel Prize-winning novel, the boys gather on the beach to discuss their predicament. It’s no surprise that Ralph states, “We have to have rules.” How prescient, because rules quell fears of losing control. Indeed, rules can ensure a group against the real possibility that the members collectively will lose control.

Staff members can also model healthy emotions by expressing their own frustration, anger, fear, or disappointment in mature ways. An elementary school poster reads, “All feelings are OK. It’s what you do with them that counts.” This actually comes alive at camp when staff members lead by example.

Being Abandoned
The moment we are born, we begin bonding with our primary caregivers. When a need arises, such as that for food or a dry diaper, we signal our caregivers by crying. Secure attachment results when these primary caregivers provide warm and reliable nurturing in response to crying or other displays of distress.

And from those early moments emerges a fear of the absence of such loving attention: the fear of being abandoned.

The difficulty children have separating from their parents for day or overnight camp is largely a function of inexperience and past relationships. Those campers most at risk for normative pathologies, such as homesickness, are the ones who have little previous experience away from home (and so they have not learned effective ways of coping), and the ones whose primary caregivers are anxious or unreliable (so these children have a pessimistic or uneasy attitude toward surrogate caregivers, such as camp staff).

Campers with a strong fear of being abandoned may be either clingy or dismissive of relationships altogether. They may have trouble making and keeping friends, may be disrespectful of staffers, and may experience intense homesickness.

Ironically, these children sometimes break rules in order to get in trouble, thus confirming their grim view of adults.

To thwart the fear of a camper’s being abandoned and to promote a healthy adjustment, camp directors can encourage practice time away from home. This helps the incoming camper to learn effective ways of coping.

And, although it may seem impossible to undo years of erratic parenting that has left a child feeling uncertain about separations, it is possible for all of the substitute parents (camp staff) to provide warmth and predictability.

Many of the most significant behavior problems at camp are durably resolved simply by including each child, by making each camper feel as if he or she is a valued member of the group.

Staff members must also recognize misbehavior for what it is: evidence that some children have not yet learned how to behave in a certain situation. These children--like all children--need limits and consequences. But more importantly, they need to be taught new social skills, new emotion-regulation skills, and new self-expression skills.

Putting It All Together
Active listening gets airtime in every camp’s training week. Staff members are dutifully taught to kneel at the child’s level, to maintain eye contact, and to make empathic comments. That’s a good start.

In the coming season, encourage the staff to listen with hearts and minds, not just eyes and ears. Asking themselves, “Is this young person responding to a core fear?” can guide the staff toward a more sensible and sensitive response.

Not every emotional or behavioral problem at camp is rooted in fear, but most kids have a big fear or two bumping around inside. Actually, we all do. And this shared reality anchors our most authentic and formative work with children.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a board-certified clinical psychologist, father, and educator. He co-wrote the Summer Camp Handbook and co-founded, a source of video training modules for camp staff. Chris also created a DVD-CD set, titled The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success, which reportedly lowers the intensity of first-year campers’ homesickness by 50 percent. He can be reached at or follow him @drchristhurber.