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What is Contagious Fear?

Heroes, idols, and archetypes; We all have someone in our lives we look up to and admire. Our admiration of these heroes elevates them to a superstar status that we mimic and aim to apply in our own lives. As a child, I remember my dad loved liver and onions with a side of mashed potatoes. I don’t know of any children who actually like liver, let alone many adults, but seeing him enjoy this made me want to try it. To this day I enjoy an array of dishes that people important to me liked.

We mimic those important to us because they possess qualities and traits we wish we had. “That person was fearless”, “They were so strong” and so on. Other times, an interest of ours leads us to someone who is the best in that field. Musicians, athletes, actors, and tastemakers; we all wish we could be like them or do what they do. These people create an example and its our awe of their ability that makes them a leader in our lives. I see this often in siblings. The younger look for the response from the eldest, that response dictates how they will behave, interpret and react to situations and instruction. Typically, the eldest sets the pace. If they are apprehensive of something, the siblings will follow in their footsteps. A child who had a near drowning experience was brought to me in hopes of overcoming their fear of water. After a difficult month of training, significant progress was shown starting into the second month. The parents expressed excitement over their students progress and wanted to enroll their younger child into lessons as well. The younger student had a severe phobia of the water. Though not being present when the eldest had their near drowning experience, the fearful response of the eldest was (unintentionally) projected onto the younger. When brought in for an evaluation, the younger student displayed an even more fearful aversion to the water than the one who nearly drowned. With no personal reason for fear, the youngest looked at their siblings response as the final say. I encouraged the parents to keep them separate until the eldest was more confident in the water. Once they were able to float and submerge their head comfortably, then we could combine the class. I also encouraged them to let the older student show their siblings what they had been practicing. The bathtub is an excellent place for this as most children do not see the bath as a threatening body of water. On the first combined lesson, the younger student displayed far more willingness to participate in submersions, floating and kicking exercises. This was due solely to the positive attitude of the eldest. While I am confident in my teaching abilities and methods, until a much stronger sense of trust was established with the younger student, it would be the older student to influence a positive willingness. Always encourage your student(s) to do their best and understand that any extracurricular activities are not a competition between siblings. Avoid adding unnecessary pressure on the older students as well as comparing progress between them. Encourage, uplift and allow them to develop at pace comfortable to them.

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