The Fear Factor

The Fear Factor

Let’s say your little one has climbed to the top of a piece of equipment at Romp n’ Roll and is getting prepared to jump onto the mat below. Suddenly she freezes and says she is afraid. What should you do? Belittle her for being timid? Smile broadly and encourage her to overcome her reluctance? Tell her it is okay and help her climb back down?Obviously, the first option is highly inappropriate. Perhaps less obviously, unless the child is truly hysterical, the third option is inappropriate as well. It is the second option that actually makes the most psychological sense.

Let’s say you are going sky diving for the first time. Before you make the jump, how are you feeling? Terrified, of course. But after you make the jump and land successfully, how are you feeling now? Absolutely exhilarated. The next time you go, are you feeling as terrified? No. So when you land the next time, you are not feeling as exhilarated. But you loved that feeling of intense exhilaration and want to get it back. That means you are going to have to do a free fall or something else more challenging to get the full terrified feeling back. However, knowing that the exhilaration will be there at the end encourages you to face the fear at the start and conquer the new challenge.

Psychologists use the fancy term “opponent-process” to describe this phenomenon. In simple terms it means that fear is an essential element in building confidence and becoming inspired to take on increasingly difficult challenges. And you see this happening every day at Romp n’ Roll. Once a reluctant little one is successfully encouraged to take that first scary leap, from that point on, tackling intimidating tasks becomes self-fulfilling and self-sustaining.

Michael K. Meyerhoff, Ed.D. (a.k.a. “Dr. Mike”) is a member of the management team at Romp n’ Roll. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Columbia University, he earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in human development from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he also held a position as a researcher with the Harvard Preschool Project. He may be contacted via e-mail at