This is an edited version of a post originally published on Respectfully Connected.
My son has a fear of dogs. When he was younger, dogs were the main reason for him being a runner. So, I became hyper vigilant when walking with him. I watched for dogs. When I spotted one, I would make sure that I was holding his hand and I was putting myself between the dog and him. I respected his fear. I worked with it, and I didn’t try to force him to face it, nor did I ignore it.
At the same time, my own fears surrounding his fear were increasing. Should I be doing something about this fear? Were my actions reinforcing his fear? Basically, my fear was the same as the fear all parents experience from time to time. Was I failing as a parent?
I had received some well-intentioned advice from other people about how I should force him to face his fear. My instincts told me that that was the wrong thing to do. My instincts told me that that would only increase his fear, and it would damage the trust relationship that we had. We read a few books together about people being brave, but I never explicitly linked what we were reading to his fear of dogs because I didn’t want to make him feel bad about being scared of dogs. Still, I wondered whether I was doing enough. I wondered whether the advice I received was better than the way I was doing things based on my instincts.
But, then, something magical happened…
We were walking down the road, and I spotted a dog. I asked my son if he would like to swap sides with me, and to my surprise, he said no. We walked (very slowly) past the dog. He held my hand tightly but the sense of panic that had been there previously was gone. Once we had successfully walked past, I asked him why he had decided that he didn’t want to switch sides. He said “I’ve decided it’s time to conquer my fear”. I asked him where he had heard the term ‘conquering fear’ because I couldn’t remember a time when I had phrased it that way. He told me that he had watched a YouTuber conquering his fear of heights by playing a game. Even though we had read books about being brave, my son needed to make this discovery by himself, in his own way.
My son hasn’t fully conquered his fear of dogs yet. He is still nervous around them, but he’s working on it. While he’s working on conquering his fear, I’m working on conquering my own. My way might not be the conventional way, but it is working well for him. I no longer need to be afraid to disregard advice that does not align with my instincts as my son’s parent because my son is doing alright.