Fear-Setting: A Stress Management Tool for Kids
Fear-Setting: A Stress Management Tool for Kids
7 min read
By Kathryn Rawson
Fear-Setting: A Stress Management Tool for Kids

In Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith the ever-wise and ever-green Yoda delivered a profound statement - "Named must your fear be before banish it you can." Though his syntax is questionable, his message is certainly wise. Yoda's words echo that of Seneca the Roman stoic philosopher who, between 63 AD and 65 AD, wrote a series of letters. In one of them, he wrote, "We suffer more in imagination than in reality."

These are the principles upon which the idea of 'fear-setting' is built. By actively writing down our fears, and visualizing the worst and best-case scenarios, we can plan accordingly and avoid the paralysis that often accompanies fear. This paralysis so often leads to inaction, which further promulgates the cycle of fear. Rather, by focusing on what we CAN control, our fears can be made more tangible and our stress reduced.

A 2017 study led by Hans Schroder, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Michigan, showed that participants who engaged in expressive writing about their worries experienced reduced stress and anxiety, in comparison to those who wrote about topics unrelated to their worries. The report concluded that "writing may serve to 'offload' worries from working memory, relieving the distracting effects of worry on cognition as reflected in a decreased ERN (error-related negativity)."

How Fear Setting Works

Tim Ferris, the author of The 4-Hour Work Week swears by fear-setting as a "recipe for avoiding self-destruction" and "making better decisions."

Fear-setting is an extremely helpful tool for adults and children alike to learn to identify their fears and to separate what can be controlled from what cannot. By focusing on what is in our control, and taking action, we can decrease emotional reactivity and stress.

Ferris provides a template for fear-setting (which can be found in the recommended resources at the end of this article). The basic structure is outlined below:

First Page

Split the page into three columns.

Column 1: Define -- Write down the worst-case scenario, and put your fear into words.

Column 2: Prevent -- Write down what could be done to prevent the worst-case scenario.

Column 3: Repair -- Write down what could be done to repair the worst-case scenario.

Second Page

Write down what the best-case scenario would be. What would happen if you 'did the thing' and it was successful?

Third Page

Write down what the cost of inaction would be, if you didn't 'do the thing' -- emotionally, financially, physically? This page can be divided into three columns: cost of inaction in six months, one year, and three years.

Stress Management for Kids

Fear-setting will help children manage their stress and anxiety and teach them to plan better. Simultaneously it will assist in self-regulation -- allowing them to manage their emotions and behaviors in a healthy and productive way. For most adults self-regulation comes easily but for children, it takes both time and practice.

Depending on age and life stage, the fears faced by children will be different. Younger children may fear the dark or the 'monster' under their bed, teenagers may fear failing a test, not getting into their desired college, or being socially rejected. According to Elianna Platt, a licensed social worker, "being afraid sometimes is a normal, healthy part of growing up."

As a parent, it is tempting to jump to 'fix' the situation when we see our child in distress. What is more useful would be to encourage them to lean into and listen to their fear or anxiety. By teaching them the principles of fear-setting, we can help them find the words to describe their fears and worries and find the necessary actions to address them.

Rachel Busman, a clinical psychologist at the_ Child Mind Institute_ explains that parents, caretakers, and coaches should "provide the scaffolding" that kids need before they can stand on their own. At Coachbit, our Stress Management Modules do just that. The general well-being of our students is central to their ability to focus on other areas such as study skills.

How to Help Your Kid With Fear-Setting

1. Ask Questions

The fear-setting template suggested by Tim Ferris can most certainly be used for children but, depending on their age, it is likely that an adult will need to guide them through the process. For many children and teenagers, identifying their fears and anxieties and putting them into words can be difficult. Asking questions is a great way to gain more clarity and help them identify their fears. If they are anxious about giving a presentation at school, the following questions could be helpful to ask:

  • What makes you most nervous about the presentation? (the friends watching, fear of public speaking, confusion about the subject)
  • Do you feel well-prepared for the presentation?
  • Have you given a presentation before that didn't go the way you'd hoped?

2. Fill in the Template

With the greater clarity provided by these questions, your child can go on to complete the first page of the fear-setting template. What exactly is the 'worst case scenario' -- is it that they will embarrass themselves in front of all their friends or that they will fail?

Once able to properly define the specific fear, appropriate action can be chosen to 'prevent' the worst-case scenario. In this case, is it about setting aside time each day to rehearse the presentation, or is it about revising the work to ensure the presentation notes are accurate -- or both?

Finally, should the presentation go horribly and the fear becomes a reality, what can be done to 'repair' the situation -- for example, ask the teacher for feedback for future presentations, and set up a time with a teacher or tutor to go over the work.

Validate Their Fears

Expressing fears and emotions is difficult for many children and for most it does not come easy. It is incredibly important that a parent or caretaker takes these fears seriously -- even if it seems as ludicrous as a monster under the bed or an unfamiliar noise. Instead of 'it's not that scary' or 'what is there to be afraid of' try validating their feelings -- 'Wow! It sounds like you are scared. That noise was very loud.'

After offering validation and comfort, it is important to swiftly move on and start talking about how fear can be managed and what action can be taken. According to Dr. Busman, we shouldn't spend too much time "offering comfort around the scary thing, because even that can become reinforcing and take on a life of its own."

Final Thoughts

Patience and encouragement are both very important when guiding your child through fear. The process of fear-setting will most likely be uncomfortable for them at first and they may even be resistant. To recap, fear-setting follows these simple steps:

  1. Define the fear and worst-case scenario.

  2. Consider what could be done to prevent it from happening.

  3. Consider what could be done to repair the situation if it happens.

  4. Consider the best-case scenario.

  5. Consider the cost of inaction.

During periods of stress such as exams, college admissions, or sports tryouts, fear-setting can be extremely beneficial and relieve the symptoms of stress both mentally and physically, allowing us to spend greater energy on what matters -- preparation.

Recommended Resources:

Ted Talk: Tim Ferris -- 'Why you should define your fears instead of your goals'

Tim Ferris Blog: Fear-Setting: The Most Valuable Exercise I Do Every Month

Coachbit Fear-Setting Worksheet Template

mental healthbehavioremotionsteenagerslifestyleadolescencemotivationacademicsStressStressedfearanxietypressurestress management

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