Games Fears Play

When one works with children, or is around children a lot, the concept of fear becomes very different than how we understand it in stories. It’s not just fear of darkness, of heights, of waterbodies or strangers. Despite working with children, my first thought was, children have no obvious fears. Today we only talk about children being bolder than ever, being spirited, to the extent of even being insolent in many cases. Especially in environments that are free-er than others, we talk about how children take it for granted and don’t understand the responsibilities that come along with freedom. But these very behaviours, whether it’s plain boldness, or bordering disrespect sometimes, could all connect to a larger theme of being afraid; of having too much to handle in the limited resources that one has as a child or adolescent. And possibly the biggest fear amongst all that one sees on a daily basis; the fear of not being accepted for what one is. And this is a time immemorial fear.

We see behaviours as manifestations of a need in each person. When we engage with the TV too much, there could be a need for stimulation, or a need for escape; when we snap at others and throw our anger around, there could be a need for some personal time and space to create some peace within. Similarly, one way of understanding children, and this is a popularly used in developmental literature, is to understand the function of the behaviour. What purpose does the behaviour serve the child? There are many ways in which the fear of not being accepted plays out. These are some of the ways that I have been able to witness, as a counsellor, working with children in an urban private school.

A child’s biggest source of wellbeing comes from home. We are mostly products of our home environment, very strongly shaped by it. And sometimes, when the home environment is not conducive because it is not safe for the child, we easily recognise it. However, sometimes what is equally threatening to a child, which we don’t easily understand, is being extremely permissive to the extent of neglecting, or when the parents have huge expectations on the child. Children are extremely receptive of their parents’ needs, expectations and feelings. And a lot of their behaviours and perceptions are modelled on their parents, or older siblings. And thus, when there are expectations on them, they feel a sense of responsibility to meet it out, which we’ve seen can be overwhelming.

There was a 12 year old child, who was a high achiever. The parents were always wanting the best for the child as any parent would, and their pride was tied to her performance. Thus, the child has seen them push their agenda with teachers inside and outside school, so their child is prioritised. The child seemed to be exhibiting similar behaviours in the sense of being particularly disrespectful to authority as well as her peers and not regarding to rules of any kind. She was given several consequences from school to make her reflective of the behaviours she was exhibiting. Her class teacher and counsellors would dialogue with her regularly. But nothing was particularly working; her patterns of behaviours would go back to the same. With many interactions with the parents it came to be understood that the child, because of her achievements, was regarded very highly and the parents would overly indulge her with what she needed and everything she wanted. Through the years the child had not had to experience disappointment of any kind. When her peers let her know they were uncomfortable with what she was doing, she would ask them to give her a chance, but go back to exhibiting the same behaviours. One did not see her feeling bad that she was making them uncomfortable; she was not able to connect to their discomfort. Even in dialogues the child sounded like she was saying exactly what she thought an adult would like to hear – that she would never do such a thing again and was sorry. She could see people didn’t like something and the best way she knew to handle it would be to promise it wouldn’t repeat. And this would work for a few times. But she found it difficult to understand exactly why her peers, or the school was saying this was not okay; she seemed to be resisting being vulnerable enough to feel that disappointment, or discomfort of people around her; the easy fix for “trouble” was apologising and all would go back to normal.

More than anything was her difficulty in accepting herself as a person who must take responsibilities for her actions, and that she sometimes does make mistakes which is okay to own up to. She had never had a need to get in touch with her emotions very deeply. When she came to terms with it because the school was asking her to reflect on her actions, the child was not able to fit herself into the image the parents had of her and there was a deep fear of self-acceptance.

Sometimes the same parental pressure and expectation can play out in a different way. Above, we saw how it manifested in a behaviour of finding quick fixes, rather than working with empathy and getting in touch with oneself. Another way it manifests is where the child fears disappointing parents in an aspect, to the extent that they don’t accept a part of themselves, so they never have the chance of disappointing their parents. The pattern of thought is such that when I am not being who my parents want me to be, I am a failure. In our striving to teach our children all our values and rules of the world, we put too much pressure on them being the best version of themselves. If the child falls short of what we’ve been honing them for, they understand it sometimes, as a failure on their part. Being the best always, even if it’s the child’s best, is a responsibility far greater than they can handle sometimes. Even as adults we don’t play the role of being our best selves, so it is much harder on children, who are still in the process of finding out who they are. And in these times, when there is scope for the child to make mistakes, they shut down because that is a very scary path to traverse; their understanding is that it’s not okay to be wrong.

There was a child who we worked with, for whom it was very important what his parents thought of him; which is not uncommon for children. Through our dialogues with him, and parent meetings the school had, we understood that they’ve taught him the value of being perfect and expected nothing less. The message received by the child was that you’re not good enough if you’re making mistakes. To live up to this unreal expectation set by his parents of him, the child was found not participating in any of the school activities, be it academic or non-academic for the fear of making mistakes and being found out by the parents. And this got generalised as a larger lesson, that no space allows for mistakes; if you are erring, no one will accept you, least of all the parents. Working with the child involved working on his confidence that people around you will accept and accommodate you for who you are, mistakes and all. But that was a very difficult path down for him. It took a long time for him to even see how he is caught in between his parents’ expectation (sometimes perceived expectations), and his own capacities.

On the other extreme are children who are not completely nourished at home, either with attention, affection. One could say that they are neglected and thus the children must take up the responsibility of being mature and self-made very early on in their lives. When there is such a clear lack from home, sometimes it gets translated into the child craving for that attention, affection and nurturance from other spaces such as the school space. In our attempt to providing everything for our children, there sometimes is a tendency to focus on providing the best for our children financially, or through various academic and non-academic support. But the best support we can provide is being available to the child, no matter what. The understanding of a child that she is loved and valued, comes from the adult support system. This builds on to children being emotionally resilient as they grow older and being able to provide wellbeing to others themselves, as adults.

There was an 8-year-old child who had an adverse home environment. Her physical needs were taken care of, but the parents were not available for her. We saw this play out, where it seemed like she would seek that attention from teachers and peers in school, to feel grounded. Through the years the school had observed that being left out at times, impacted her more than it would a typical child at her age; she found it difficult to bounce back from being upset about being left out of a game, or group. This led to the counsellor dialoguing with her and she spoke about how her greatest fear was being isolated. Even the smallest triggers at school, for instance the teachers having moved forward in portions when the child was absent, the child construed as the teacher not caring for her, furthering her idea of being isolated. Her fear of being left out was so real that it would deeply upset her when she perceived that she wasn’t being cared for. And when the child made a mistake and got told off, the child would internalise it so deeply. For her it would loop back to nobody liking her despite her trying to be the best version of herself by not doing anything that would upset anyone. But as a child it was not her responsibility to worry if she was suitable to her peers’ preferences, or if there was a temporary disagreement between them. The child was found to be taking on too much of a responsibility of peers’ dynamics, that was burdensome for her, which was otherwise common 8-year-old dynamics. It was extremely complex because the child’s greatest need was to have a sense of belonging and at home that was not happening. And at school, amongst so many other children, if the adults weren’t careful, it could only further the child’s fear of isolation.

We’ve seen how if negative patterns of thinking are not given regard to and challenged as younger children, they could translate into maladaptive behaviours as they’re growing up. This would stem from somethings much deeper than the immediate surroundings. To tackle a behaviour as a behaviour would not be helpful in these cases where there is a much deeper root and without addressing that root issue, addressing the behaviour is only surface-level work. While temporarily one might be able to reduce the unacceptable behaviour, the growing child could still be left with their negative impressions and misperceptions of the wider world around them.

Similar to the child above, there was an older child, whose fear when he was younger was that no one would accept him because he is different from the rest of them. He had been comfortable talking about this to his class teacher and would raise observations of how he’s different, with the adults who would dialogue with him. One could see over the years in school, how he had internalised that fear to an extent that he believed nobody cared for him or liked him and constantly felt misunderstood. His coping mechanism was the fear itself; being misunderstood became an identity he carried for himself. He felt a sense of power in defining himself, as opposed to living in that constant fear of feeling uncared for. But with this also came the resolute disregard that no one could help him. He felt he had to fight each battle by himself, and for him he felt everyday was a battle. He felt no adult or peer could truly understand him and the only thing he could do was stand up for himself any way he knew. If he was questioned for using violence, he would see it as a way in which he had stood up for himself, and thus it was not a problem. That the adult was pointing it out, only confirmed that nobody was on his side. It was an extremely strong wall he had built for himself that came from a deep fear of powerlessness and isolation as he was growing up. That’s a very undesirable stance to see children take because it reflects a failure on the part of the adults to show them that they can lean on them for support.

The fear of powerlessness also can be seen in children who establish their power by snatching the peers’ rights. This is done most of the time in the form of bullying and teasing. The feeling of not having control is an undesirable feeling. Children sometimes find ways in which they can exert their power externally over others who are smaller or weaker in some ways. During those times they are in control and it feels good, and thus this becomes a learned way of feeling good about themselves. It is almost like an overcompensation, for fear of being seen for who they really are, as children without power. This is seen a whole lot across all spaces that children inhabit.

It becomes the responsibility of all adults to not target the behaviours; they are meaningless because they are only symptoms. Symptoms can change across time but if the deeper needs and fears are not addressed, it’ll only play out in ways that are unhealthy for the growing child and adolescent. There is however, no fixed pattern of which behaviours reflect what fears, and no formula. What we can do as adults, is to take care to constantly be in dialogue with the child. And network with all the stakeholders of the child to understand the child better and to help them. To create at least one space of wellbeing where the child can be unconditionally accepted for who they are is important. And teaching the child to ask for help when needed is a skill we should be teaching children. This will prevent adults from taking too much control of the child’s life, not letting them make their decisions because we feel we know better. And the possibility of the child taking on too much responsibility for their own wellbeing, learning and care, when it is the adult’s responsibility to provide all of that. Any plan to tackle behaviours must keep the child in the loop, they should also be responsible for deciding what kind of help they would like.

Swati Sambrani

Author is a counselor in a school. She works with children on their socio-emotional issues.