Input shapes the output: How caregiver-child conversations shape children’s fears

Key takeaways about childhood fears for caregivers

  • Children can develop fears from direct experiences, but they often develop them through information they receive from others.
  • Childhood fears often form within the family context. Caregivers’ own fears and the way they talk about them influence children’s developing attitudes and fears.
  • Being aware of how conversations with children affect the development of fear can help caregivers be more thoughtful about the information they convey so children form their own attitudes without caregiver bias.

Common Fears in Childhood

Fear is a critical emotion for survival. Across development, children follow a predictable pattern of the kinds of things they fear, beginning with strangers in infancy, ghosts or animals in early childhood, injury-related fears in older childhood, and socially driven fears by adolescence (LoBue, 2013). Childhood fears are considered a normal and healthy part of development, particularly when they are mild, age-appropriate and go away over time.

However, for some children, fears become maladaptive if they persist, become more intense, and impair children’s daily lives. Understanding how childhood fears are formed may help caregivers prevent extreme fears from forming and support children’s healthy development of fear.

Caregiver-child conversations form the basis of much of children’s attitudes and behaviors toward the world, including fear.

Origins of common fears: Why are we so afraid of snakes and spiders?

Across the globe, snakes and spiders are two of the most commonly and intensely feared animals, making these creatures prime candidates for exploring fear development. While some snakes and spiders can be harmful to humans in specific contexts, most humans in industrialized and urban regions of the world have very little experience with these animals in their day-to-day lives. So why are we so afraid of snakes and spiders?

Research suggests that humans have specialized mechanisms to rapidly detect and avoid evolutionary threats (like snakes and spiders), which promotes survival across generations (Öhman & Mineka, 2001). However, humans are not necessarily born afraid of snakes and spiders. In fact, studies examining fear of snakes and spiders in infancy and early childhood show that early in life, humans often show interest in and sometimes even approach these animals (LoBue et al., 2013). This suggests that fears of snakes and spiders are learned and developed over time.

Furthermore, like adults, children have even fewer encounters with snakes and spiders in the real world, making it unlikely that children develop their fear of these animals through direct and scary encounters with them. Since most children lack direct and negative experiences with snakes and spiders, they likely develop fear of these creatures in other ways.

How caregiver-child conversations shape childhood fears

One of the ways children learn about unfamiliar things is through interactions with their caregivers. Caregiver-child conversations form the basis of much of children’s attitudes and behaviors toward the world, including fear. In fact, most children attribute the origins of their fears to receiving negative information about the object of their fear (Ollendick & King, 1991). This is particularly true for things they have little experience with, like snakes and spiders.

caregiver conversations fears

Photo: Ketut Subiyanto. Pexels.

To further explore the impact of caregiver input on childhood fears, in a recent study, my colleagues and I examined the kinds of information parents provide their children about different kinds of animals. We wanted to see whether and how conversations about snakes and spiders differ from conversations about less commonly feared animals (Reider et al., 2022).

To explore this question, 27 parents (22 mothers, 5 fathers) and their 4- to 6-year-olds (12 females, 15 males) read a picture book of animals, including commonly feared creatures like snakes and spiders, as well as similar animals that are less commonly feared, like frogs, turtles, and lizards. We then compared the kinds of emotional information parents provided to their children in their conversations about the different animals.

When we examined the content of parent-child conversations, we found that both parents and children provided more negative information (e.g., “That’s pretty scary,” “I don’t like spiders”) and less positive information (e.g., “He’s cute,” “I like it”) about snakes and spiders. They also provided less positive information about snakes and spiders than they did about frogs, turtles, and lizards.

Furthermore, parents and children also reported more fear of snakes and spiders than of the other animals in the book. This suggests that conversations about commonly feared animals like snakes and spiders contain more negative and less positive information, which may contribute to children developing fear toward these animals.

Informing parents about the impact of their conversations on children’s learning led those parents to use less negative information, and their children reported less fear toward snakes and spiders.

In the same study, we also explored whether we could change the emotional language input children receive about snakes and spiders, and whether changing the input would change children’s fear toward these creatures. A new group of 54 parents (44 mothers, 8 fathers, 2 legal guardians) and their young children (27 females, 27 males) read a similar picture book featuring snakes, spiders, lizards, and turtles, and we again examined the emotional input parents provided about each animal.

However, in this study, half of parents were first told to go through the book as they normally would with their child, while the other half were informed about how the negative information they provide during conversations with their children might shape their children’s fear of animals. They were also instructed to try to focus on the information they most wanted their children to learn about the animals.

Overall, parents and children in both groups still provided more negative information and were more fearful of snakes and spiders than of the other animals. However, informing parents about the impact of their conversations on children’s learning led those parents to use less negative information, and their children reported less fear toward snakes and spiders, though the effects were small.

caregiver conversations fears

Photo: pham manh. Pexels.

Additional studies on the effect of reducing negative input (and potentially increasing positive input) on children’s fear beliefs are needed to better understand how information may shape children’s fear of animals. However, our findings shed light on the idea that simply making parents aware of the impact of their conversations on children’s fear may change the input children receive and influence how fears are developed.

Broader implications for everyday conversations with children

The take-home message is simple: What we say to children matters. The information children receive from conversations with their caregivers helps shape how children form attitudes and engage with the world around them. In the case of animal fears, caregiver-child conversations about commonly feared animals like snakes and spiders are filled with negative input and lack of positive input, which may contribute to children’s fear development.

Changing the input in caregiver-child conversations may help reduce or prevent those fears from developing in the first place. Simply being aware of how speakers’ attitudes and beliefs are transmitted to children through everyday conversations may help caregivers remove their biases from conversations to help children form their own attitudes.

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