Is It Okay To Make Your Child Face Their Fears?

Today I’m adding to the “Is It Okay to ___?” series and focusing on a parenting issue.

My oldest son had a fear of the vacuum.

I say had because he’s no longer scared of it.

He’s no longer scared of it because I made him vacuum.

But it wasn’t a pretty sight. He was screaming. He was crying. He was trying to push the vacuum and cover his ears from the noise at the same time.

(Okay, I realize that at this point some of you are probably freaking out, picking up your phones to call the authorities and report my parenting. But hang with me.)

My son had an irrational fear of the vacuum that developed only recently.

He used to love vacuum cleaners. Like, lo-ove them. In fact, when he was 2, we took him to see Santa. That year Santa was located in a shopping center that housed an Oreck vacuum store. Immediately after seeing Santa, my son requested that we take him to the vacuum store. We did. He was thrilled. So thrilled that he said it was better than Santa. He sat next to the stand-up cardboard cut out of the Oreck vacuum guy and we took his picture. He liked that better than having his picture made with Santa, he said.

Fast forward nearly four years. Suddenly the sound of the vacuum bothers his ears and causes him to act as if the machine has turned into a live crocodile.

“That’s too bad,” I say. “Because you’ve made a mess with your paper and scissors. Looks like a confetti machine exploded in here. You need to clean it up.”

“It’s too much to clean up with my fingers.”

“Fine,” I said. “You can vacuum.”

Commence with the waterworks and the mini-freak out.

I plugged the vacuum in. I said, “Son, I’m going to turn the vacuum on now and you are going to push it and vacuum up the mess you made.”

I switched the vacuum on. He screamed. Screamed.

I turned the vacuum off. I took my son by the shoulders and told him under no uncertain terms, “You are not allowed to be afraid of the vacuum. It can’t hurt you and you made a mess. You must now clean it up.”

I let him go, switched the vacuum on and put the handle in his hand. He shot me a look that I could read clearly, but I let it go because he was screaming, trying to cover his ears, and pushing the vacuum all at the same time.

And I’m sorry, but the scene in my house was hysterical. I tried to stifle a smile & my laughter because I didn’t want to upset him further. He was livid. Red with rage, screaming, crying, and probably the most upset I’ve ever seen him. But the emotions fueled him which made him push the vacuum faster, which made him realize that the vacuum was doing what it is made to do– suck up the mess, not eat small children.

He cleaned up the mess.

When he was finished he calmed down immediately. He admitted that using the vacuum wasn’t so bad.

And then he asked me if he could please vacuum the rest of the house for a dollar.

I call that success.

And I’m willing to part with a dollar if it means my son has conquered an irrational fear and my floors are clean.

I don’t know that telling him he’s “not allowed” be afraid of something was the best move, but that’s what I said in the moment, and praise God, that worked.

I don’t make light of my children’s fears. I never have. But in this case, I knew that an irrational fear would do him more harm than facing it and realizing that he’s more powerful than his fear.

I know that there are all different kinds of parents and all different styles of parenting, and this was my call with this particular situation in the moment. In a different situation, facing a different fear, I might not have pushed him. I certainly wouldn’t have thrown him into the deep end of a pool if he were afraid of water, for example. (Thankfully, he’s not. Swims like a fish.)

But I’d like to hear from you. What do you think about children and fear, rational or irrational?

(Jeannie Campbell, I’m waiting for your comment, LMFT.)

Share with me: Have you ever had to make your child face a fear? What was your outcome? What techniques do you think are effective?


Filed under Is It Okay To ____?, Parenting

16 responses to “Is It Okay To Make Your Child Face Their Fears?

  1. wendypainemiller

    We had a similar scene this week, except my sweet DD had broken something of mine b/c she was mad at me & I made her vacuum it up. No fear in that kid, I swear. I think if it’s handled in a responsible guiding way, it’s absolutely fine to help children face their fears. Talk through it. Isn’t that what do with ourselves on a near daily basis as writers? 😉
    ~ Wendy

  2. jessicarpatch

    When I was a little girl, I was terrified of sleeping upstairs in my bedroom. Paralyzing, haunting fear. But my parents made me go back up there every night. I cried gallons of tears until my Mom finally said I could sleep in my brother’s trundle bed. I did that for about 3 or 4 years until 8th grade! My mom was hospitalized and during that time, I started sleeping up there on my own. I don’t remember why, I just did. Still I was afraid at times.

    My son has been going through the same fear and because I remember how frightening it was, I don’t make him sleep there. He’s been sleeping on my daughter’s trundle bed for the last few months! lol But funny you write this, because a few days ago he said, “I might sleep in my room tonight.” He wanted to attempt it but that night, I made no effort to encourage him. Last night, since he’s been talking about it, making me think he wants to, I took him in there and he did cry a little, poked out that bottom lip, but we prayed and I kept a light on in the living room, the bathroom across the hall and a bright night light in his room.

    I felt like it was more encouraging him to do what he really wanted to but was afraid of. My husband has said all along, “Make him do it! Force him to. If we don’t no one will.” But I couldn’t, because I could relate so well. Thus causing a few arguments between us.

    I think there’s a fine line between forcing a terrified kid to do something and guiding them to conquer a fear. I’d say it depends on the fear, but fear is fear and real to the person who is victim to it.

    Let’s bring Jeanne in for sure! LOL Sorry I wrote a book on your page!

    • Jess- I totally agree. There is a fine line between forcing a kid to do something terrifying and guiding them to conquer fear. I remember when I was a kid I was scared to death of the high dive at the pool. My swimming instructor threw me off and I never went back to swim lessons. Scary. Not helpful. Just made me more distrustful of adults I didn’t really know. (BTW–I’m a pretty good swimmer now.) 🙂

  3. juliejarnagin

    My son is three and terrified of loud noises. We haven’t forced him out of it yet, but who knows, we may hit that point some day. Right now, we just let him go in the other room while I vacuum. Last night, he was covering his ears because of all the crickets outside. Silly kid.

  4. Brandon

    My two year old totally got over her fear of alligators when I sent her to alligator wrestling school. She only has 8 fingers now but at least she is over the fear.

  5. Our daughter is grown and on her own, but I remember the days when she was young and terrified of those public toilets that sound like a jet engine revving up when you flush them. She was about six, but she begged me to flush them for her. I did that a couple of times and then realized I wasn’t helping her, so I told her she had to do it. You should have seen her. She’d open the stall door, stand in the doorway facing her porcelain nemesis with angry tears streaming down her cheeks, dash in to depress the lever, and run like the dickens. She didn’t overcome her fear for a long time, but at least she faced it head on.

    • Ha!! Our youngest is afraid of public toilets for that reason!! Whenever we go into a public bathroom, he says, “is it loud, Mama?” He won’t even use the potty until I flush it once to show him that it’s safe.

  6. I agree, we should always try to find ways to break the irrational fears, otherwise, they will do more harm and pose unnecessary limitations on their confidence while growing up. Overcoming fears should be part of growth. You just taught your son ONE way to overcome the fear. Well done!
    However, sometimes we do have to be careful and understand the real cause of the fear. One of my friend told me her story: she has a picky eater, almost to the point that he was afraid of any food unless it was plain rice. Every meal became a struggle…. finally they tested him and found out he is allergic to a lot of food. His fear of trying new/unfamiliar food came from his discomfort of itchy or swollen throat. Since he was too young to articulate his discomfort, it was till some skin rash appeared on his body that they went to the doctor for a check. Sometimes, we do have to be a little sensitive to kids’ fear. I guess many times, we have to use mother’s instinct to decide what the best for each child. 🙂

  7. jeanniecampbell

    so sorry to get to the game late here! i admit, reading through what you wrote at the beginning, my mouth hung open part way. then i put myself in your shoes and realized that i’d done that with maddy on friday (only it was a mixer to make her daddy’s birthday cake, not a vaccum). her response wasn’t quite as awful as your little guy’s, though.

    one of the most effective ways of getting a child (or anyone) to face fears is systematic desensitization. you can get a feel for that method with a weekend funny that i did here. it’s just a fancy term for gradually shaping them toward a goal, and it helps to reward along the way.

    love that you called me out, friend!

    • Thanks for your comment, J! But now I worry I need to videotape myself parenting for a few weeks and send it to you so you’ll know that junk like this doesn’t happen every day. 🙂

      • jeanniecampbell

        in all honesty, i came back here to see what you wrote because i wanted to make sure i hadn’t wigged you out. my jaw dropped…more like how you might do when you’re watching fear factor or something like that…not out of shock or being appalled. i swear, i’ve done something so similar many times…no worries. we’re just humans, after all. and while i think my parenting is pretty top notch, i’m sure twenty years from now, my daughter will be sitting in a support group talking about how traumatic her childhood was. yes, these are the things i think about. love you.

        • You know, I’ve thought about this “event” with my son quite a lot and I almost wonder if his reaction wasn’t at least a little bit out of defiance and not just fear. It just seems odd that he’d develop a sudden “fear” of the vacuum (granted, we’d noticed this fear over the last several months, not just on that one day) and then act out about it in such a way when I required that he use it. I think maybe it was a combination of both. But vacuuming for money was 100% his idea 🙂 and he has shown no reservations about using the vacuum since that day. Hence the reason why I think maybe this was a little fear mixed with a lot of “I don’t want to clean.”

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