Terrible tales do not have to turn into terror

March 22, 2002

Research into how fears start and why some grow out of control has found that any information presented to children in a scary manner predisposes them to develop a real fear. Geoff Watts meets a man fighting phobias.

How much fear is good for you? Daft question, you may think. Isn't freedom from fear something we all seek? Up to a point, yes - though it would be a mistake to underestimate its value as a spur to self-protection. A complete absence of fear opens the way to battlefield heroics, but some less glamorous demise is a more likely outcome.

On the other hand, when a perceived hazard looms out of all proportion, fear becomes phobia. And although some phobias are merely troublesome, others are socially crippling. And that is why Andy Field is exploring fear in childhood, the period in which most phobias seem to originate.

Children's fears tend to follow regular patterns. Four to eight-year-olds tend to fear animals and ghosts. Pre-adolescents tend to fear injury, and young people throughout adolescence tend to fear a mix of social situations. If the seeds of adult problems are sown in childhood, it may be that these ages are periods of special vulnerability for the development of particular phobias.

Field, a member of the Clinical and Experimental Research Group at the University of Sussex, is trying to find out how fears start and why some grow out of control. He recently got a three-year grant from the Economic and Social Research Council for his project.

Early attempts at explaining phobias saw them as the outcome of a conditioning process in which objects or situations caused fear through their association with a deeply upsetting incident. But common sense tells us that events of this kind cannot be the only explanation, Field says. Information and observation must also be involved.

"Information clearly has a role to play in generating fear, as when mothers tell their children not to go near a dog. And then there is the observation of other people's responses: the cliche of the mother standing on a chair screaming while the mouse runs around her feet. The child takes on board messages that these are things he ought to be frightened of. They create a set of beliefs about what is or isn't scary."

One man who did much to develop this view was Stanley Rachman, who is now an emeritus professor at the University of British Columbia. It was his research at the Institute of Psychiatry, in London, that crystallised thinking on the origin of childhood phobias, and in particular the role played by indirect and non-traumatic influences.

Building on this work, Field is studying the creation of what he calls "fear expectancies" - children's beliefs, formed solely on the basis of what they are told and what they observe, that some things or circumstances are frightening.

Many studies in this area have been retrospective, carried out on adults and, Field says, flawed. Some rely on questioning subjects to determine which of the paths Rachman identifies are responsible for their phobia. "But the researchers assume these pathways exist," Field says. "Subjects have to slot their experiences into one of the categories. There may be other pathways we have not thought of. And all this (research) is usually going on about 20 years after the events that subjects are being asked to recall."

Hence the need for a prospective study: a challenging task because you can hardly set about creating real fears in small children. With colleagues at Sussex, Field negotiated this ethical minefield by devising experiments in which teachers told groups of children short stories about a couple of monsters. One tale - you might call it the Enid Blyton version - casts the monster in a positive light: "Once upon a time, there lived a friendly, caring monster called Takis. He lived in a lovely little cottage with a garden full of flowersI" And then there is the Roald Dahl version: "Once upon a time, there lived a horrible, scary monster called Takis. Takis was 12 feet tall with huge, sharp fangs for eating childrenI" By questioning the children before and after the story sessions, Field found that negative information had a clear effect on what he calls their "fear-related beliefs". And anything serving to increase a child's expectation of fear will, he argues, predispose that child towards developing a real fear, either after other experiences or simply through a constant reflection on the topic.

When the sessions were repeated using other children of similar age as storytellers, the effect disappeared. Perhaps only adults or older children have the necessary authority. Field is not sure. "You've got to be a bit careful how you interpret this. Obviously the adults had more verbal fluency than the children's peers, and could present the stories more convincingly." Either way, he had evidence of the main point: that information by itself can be a precursor of fear.

The new ESRC work is an extension and a refinement of this approach. Instead of monsters, Field and his collaborators will tell the children stories about three Australian marsupials: the quokka, the quoll and the cuscus. Field describes them as "large kind of ratty rabbit-type looking things". English children, he reckons, will never have heard of them and therefore harbour no preconceptions. "We'll be telling the children a positive story about one animal, a negative story about another, and we'll say nothing about the third, which will act as a control."

In other studies, children will be told stories about social situations of the kind likely to create apprehension: speaking to the whole class; eating in public; and meeting a stranger. Some stories will have good outcomes, some bad.

The long-term goal of the research is to find ways of preventing the formation of adult phobias. But Field hopes that, even by the end of this first phase, he may be able to suggest ways in which parents and schools can prevent children's normal fears from attaining phobic proportions. Even the basic finding that negative information will more easily engender fear than positive information will insulate against it, is a useful insight.

It was Franklin D. Roosevelt, addressing the US Congress, who used the phrase "freedom from fear". In an earlier speech, he had coined an even more famous line: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." That is not wholly true, perhaps. But it is clear that this state of mind is one you can more easily think yourself into than out of.

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