It’s not good to threaten people, nor is it nice to frighten others. However, sometimes a little fear is what works best to keep us safe. Communication scholars and psychologists have cited motivation as a key component in humans’ need to protect themselves.
Protection Motivation Theory notes that people will act based on the fear of disaster, whether or not an actual disaster is taking place. Most people are likely to alter their behavior in order to decrease the risk of experiencing misfortune.
How then, can parents prepare their children for the potential dangers in life?
It seems like an insurmountable conundrum: How to make children aware of all the terrible things that can happen to them without actually traumatizing them?
Research has proven that self-efficacy — defined as our perceived ability to perform a specific task — correlates with our capability (or lack thereof) to meet obstacles head on.
We respond to fear in different ways. If we know that something is bad for us — like smoking — we will refrain from doing it in order to lower our risk of disease in the future.
This kind of protection motivation is generally low key and low stress. However, if we found ourselves in a tree-filled park during a lightning storm, we would respond to the threat more urgently since the danger would be far more imminent.
Emergency scenarios such as those that are perceived as being immediate threats are therefore much more stressful.
Of course, fear can sometimes become so overwhelming and constant that the human mind shuts down or “tunes out” in order to protect itself.
People who have experienced great traumas sometimes block the events out and those who live in war-torn countries simply learn to take their chances whenever they leave their homes. If people feel completely helpless against a threat, their protection motivation will be quite low.
Considering this “shut down” phenomenon in the face of fear, it is generally not a good idea to threaten people into acting a certain way.
Threats lead to stress and stress, in turn, can lead to psychological turmoil, or even to apathy, which subsequently produces no change in behavior.
However, fear can indeed serve as a motivator for behavior changes as long as it is applied appropriately. Direct threats produce negative consequences, and warnings produce generally positive reactions.
Acknowledging what could happen helps people cope with the possibility of danger by teaching them ways to avoid it.
Even from an early age, most children understand the difference between a definite and a possibility. Thus, even small children are able to differentiate between a threat and a warning. Offering an explanation of what the risk of danger is and why it exists helps to validate it in a youngster’s mind, and therefore makes it concrete. “Because I said so” is not a solid or reasonable explanation for why a child must hold an adult’s hand when he crosses the street or why he cannot wander off alone in public places. When you set rules, it is always best to be clear about WHY those rules are in place. Even in the adult world, if lawmakers want people to be respectful of rules, they must make it clear why the rules exist and ensure that the reasoning is valid in order to achieve maximum compliance.
Take, for example, a conversation I recently heard between a mother and her young son at a mall parking lot. The mother asked the little boy to hold her hand.
“Why?” he demanded.
“Because I don’t want you to get hurt,” the mother replied calmly. “I’m bigger than you are and if you hold my hand people driving their cars will be able to see me easily and you’ll be safer, too. If you crossed alone a driver might not see you and you could get hurt. Mommy doesn’t want that to happen.”
I was extremely impressed by the mother’s response and her patient approach. Her demeanor was gentle yet firm and her words were truthful. She had explained the dangers of crossing the road in detail, but she did so in a way that would not frighten her son.
Children are really just tiny adults and, like their older counterparts, they have a broad range of feelings and emotions.
Young people are capable of understanding and processing far more information than most adults give them credit for. Explaining the reasoning behind fears is the first step to teaching children how to measure legitimate dangers.
Of course, children’s minds are in a constant state of information gathering — hence the old adage about their minds being like sponges — so they are more susceptible to becoming more fearful than adults are because they have a less developed sense of proportion.
What is considered mildly menacing to an adult could be perceived as a deadly threat to a child. Telling a child: “If you don’t hold my hand when you cross the street you will be run over!” is not the ideal way to teach traffic safety because it relies on aggressive and fear-inducing tactics to convey the message.
Meanwhile, a warning is a surefire way to produce enough awareness in a child to motivate him to unquestionably hold an adult’s hand when crossing the street: “If you’re not careful and hold my hand you could get hurt.”
We fasten out seatbelts and lock our doors to decrease our chances of getting hurt in an accident or getting robbed. We get injections and annual physicals to decrease the chance of getting sick. In small ways like this we protect ourselves on a daily basis.
We might never be able to completely guarantee safety, but we strive to do our very best. Fear as a motivator works in moderation. The key is to promote the logic behind “safety first” messages and to instill a strong sense of self-sufficiency and confidence in children.
Meagan Meehan is a published author of poems, short stories, novels, and articles in numerous publications. She is also a cartoonist and an award-winning modern artist. Meehan holds Bachelors in English literature from New York Institute of Technology and a Masters of Communication from Marist College.