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Fear factor

People are reporting that they feel more fear in these uncertain times. With everything up in the air, parents and kids can reclaim a feeling of security with some tips from professionals. by DWAIN HEBDA SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | July 19, 2020 at 3:27 a.m.
Matt Boch shares a light moment with sons David (left) and Thomas. Creating an environment where children feel comfortable to voice their fears is an important part of developing coping skills. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Dwain Hebda

River Ridge is a quiet, upper-middle-class neighborhood of sprawling homes, manicured yards and yard sign after yard sign admonishing motorists to "Drive like your kids live here." Straddling the indistinct border between Midtown and West Little Rock, River Ridge is the kind of enclave where nothing much out of the ordinary happens. Stick around long enough, and you almost forget what's going on in the world outside.

But the world is still there with issues that make their way into even this serene neck of the city. Five years ago, Isaac Leggett was shooting baskets in his driveway around 10 p.m. on a Friday night when an undercover police officer, hired by the neighborhood association to patrol the area, pulled up and started questioning the then-13-year-old.

Leggett, who is Black, was asked at length about who he was and what he was doing there as his adoptive parents Lisa and Mark Leggett, who are white, sat just inside their front door watching television, mere yards away. Relating the memory, Lisa's voice is steady but it's clear the incident still makes her blood run cold.

"He came in, and he was really bothered about it," she said. "We had lived in this house a couple of years, so everybody should have known who my boys were. They're out riding bikes and stuff all the time."

"It made him very uncomfortable and made him fearful. It was an opportunity to teach him about how people are going to perceive him because of how he looks. He was fearful for a time after that, but now I think it just makes him mad."

Across America today, fear is on the rise. Uncertainty over the coronavirus pandemic, civil unrest over racial issues and the contentious political climate in which the presidential campaign is unfolding are incubating fear and everything that comes with it, say experts.

"It does feel like we're in this perfect storm," said Dr. Lindsay Kennedy, associate professor of psychology and director of well-being at Hendrix College in Conway. "Every day, I'm talking to other parents going, 'When do we send our kids back to daycare?' We have no idea. We don't know how to navigate these kinds of decisions because we've never had to face these kinds of decisions before.

"Whenever you have these big uncertainties, those uncertainties are potent opportunities to elicit fear from people."

Lindsay Kennedy, associate professor of psychology and director of wellbeing at Hendrix College in Conway

For the Leggetts, the driveway incident represents a scenario that was — and still is — a recipe for potential tragedy for Isaac and their other adopted son Joshua, 15, who's also Black. But it wasn't the first time the family had had frank conversations on the issue and would not be the last, the better to help everyone cope with the world's realities.

"We've always told our boys, especially our oldest, that they have to be careful when they're out and what to do if they get pulled over," Lisa said. "Unfortunately, Isaac's already had that happen to him twice now. He has felt targeted because of his race. So, at the young age of 18, he's already seen it."

"Fear has never been a part of our family, but I think all of us feel like there's a lot going on right now. Everybody's just kind of going with the flow."


Fear is one of our most basic emotions and, despite how we feel in the moment, one of the most useful, said Dr. Sufna John, a licensed psychologist and assistant professor and co-director of Arkansas Building Effective Services for Trauma in the UAMS Department of Psychiatry.

Dr. Sufna John UAMS

"Fear serves a really important function," she said. "Fear is the body's way of triggering responses to fight responsibly or attack back. There's also a flight response where you may need to run and escape a situation. Sometimes, there's a freeze response of staying still and not drawing attention to ourselves that may be healthy or adaptive. In general, fear promotes our body's appropriate way of addressing a situation."

But while fear is entirely natural, an inability to properly manage it can manifest in unhealthy ways, John said.

"Where fear becomes unhealthy is when we start to have fear responses to situations that aren't inherently dangerous," she said. "When we have chronic fear responses to those types of situations, that gets categorized as anxiety. Fear is a response to a specific environmental event, anxiety is more of a looming, apprehensive response, worried about things that are yet to come in the future.

"We know that the short-term impact of fear and worry really do play a role in the way our bodies work. We see people with chronic stress and anxiety to be at greater risk for gastrointestinal disorders, pain disorders and for a variety of other chronic physical health conditions. When you don't find appropriate ways to cope with fear and anxiety, it absolutely has an impact on your physical well-being."

[RELATED: Dealing with adult fears]

Part of the issue, John said, is while the human fear response hasn't changed, the threats that trigger it have. Gone are the days when the most immediate dangers could be outfought or outrun, replaced by situations our fight-flight-freeze reflex cannot resolve.

"In the example of a tiger attack, staying in my cave protects me pretty much 100% of the time. It's super-effective and removes that fear from my life," she said. "Unfortunately, the kinds of things that cause people to feel fear and anxiety now are things where there's often not a simple coping strategy that's going to work where we have 100% control."

"So, the coping strategies we have now have changed from eliminating worry to learning how to deal with that worry, knowing that we're not going to be able to fix the problem right away."


For the 2019 installment of its annual survey of American fears, Chapman University queried more than 1,200 adults nationwide, of whom more than 77% reported corrupt government officials as something of which they are "afraid" or "very afraid." Rounding out the top five fears were pollution of rivers and oceans (68%), loved ones becoming seriously ill (67%), polluted drinking water (65%) and death of a loved one (63%).

The results showed that overall, we are finding common ground in our fears; 2019 was the second consecutive year where the top 10 fears were held by at least half of those surveyed (No. 10 last year, not having enough money for the future, garnered 56% of respondents). In 2017, only the top five fears were shared by 50% of respondents or more. In 2016, only the top response did, that again being corrupt government officials.

But there are also wide disparities concerning what's worrying whom, depending on the issue and respondent characteristics. For instance, the 2019 survey revealed 48% of total respondents were "afraid" or "very afraid" of the outcome of the 2020 election, but progressives feared it more than conservatives by a margin of almost three to one. Education levels and ethnicity also had a substantial impact on responses to the issue.

Why that matters, Kennedy points out, is because divisiveness over what frightens us can fuel negative societal behavior as we strive to find order and comfort among those with whom we share beliefs, attributes and even fear itself.

"One consequence of fear is we tend to double down on what's known and what's certain to us. We become averse to things that are different from us or things that are unknown," she said. "One particularly damaging effect is feeling prejudiced and intolerant to people who are different from us. Anytime we're in a heightened fear state, intergroup differences become a lot more apparent to us. We become more attuned to doubling down on 'in' groups and being more afraid of 'out' groups.

"If people are higher in feeling fear towards other people, they're going to retreat to people they know, who look like them and feel motivated to avoid people who are different from them. It's not surprising that we see increased intergroup conflict when fear is increased by uncertainties."


Charlotte Boch, 10, and her brother Thomas, 8, of Little Rock, are bright, inquisitive children. They are also faithful daily readers of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, a habit that hasn't developed by chance. The two siblings — joined on a hit-and-miss basis by little brother David, 6 — have been directed to this ritual by their parents, Matt and Caroline, who consider knowledge of current events an important tool for coping with residual emotions.

Charlotte Boch, 10, and her mother, Caroline Boch.
for "Fear" story
(Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Dwain Hebda)
Charlotte Boch, 10, and her mother, Caroline Boch. for "Fear" story (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Dwain Hebda)

"The kids know about covid-19 and they probably keep up with the numbers better than I do," Caroline said. "They're kids, so they pretty much ask questions from the moment they wake up until the moment they go to sleep. I can't cover anything up, not that I would want to anyway. I try to tell them we're all facing uncertainty and we're all just trying to figure it out together."

Given the children's ages, the elder Bochs dilute the more graphic elements of current events. They eschew television news, don't have cable and have been known to turn off NPR programs in the car depending on subject matter. But that aside, the parents tackle things head-on.

"If they have any specific questions, I'll try to answer them as honestly as I can," Matt said. "When school closed in March we kind of thought, well, it'll be maybe two weeks and then maybe a month. Now, we don't know what's coming up this fall. Since they know that I don't know all the answers, it's OK for them to not know all the answers either."

The Bochs' strategy aligns with recommendations by children's mental health professionals such as Dr. Ellen Manegold, pediatric psychology fellow with UAMS who also works at Arkansas Children's Hospital. Manegold said while fear itself is biological, a child's ability to process it draws heavily from their environment.

"We know that being open and talking about fear can be helpful for kids," she said. "It can help them feel less embarrassed or guilty. When they're listened to in these moments, they're going to be more likely to talk openly about other things with their caregivers in the future. I think that's a great way to get communication going."

"Modeling how to cope with anxiety or sadness or uncomfortable feelings is also huge. Kids take cues from adults and those around them about how to respond to different situations. They learn based on how adults react. If they're around caregivers or people who seem to cope with fear or uncertainty well and engage in problem-solving or relaxation strategies, among other techniques, those are all things kids can learn from and can be prompted to use themselves."

Manegold said parents cannot — and should not — try to shelter their kids from all fear. Being hard-wired into their systems as it is, children need to learn how to manage fear properly to face what life will throw at them later.

"Encourage kids to approach situations that provoke fear with them," she said. "Try not to let a kid stay home from school to avoid a test. Encourage them to stay in their own bed if they're scared of the dark. Once they get some successes, [the issue] will likely seem less scary to them.

"It's not that parents or caregivers have to feel like they're doing the perfect thing. There's not a perfect thing. Just be mindful of what the kids' reactions are. Be calm and reassuring, but also don't give too much attention for [being fearful]."

That's not to say some kids won't require more help in this process than others. Children often can't or won't articulate that they're struggling with coping, Manegold points out, but physical and behavioral hints are often noticeable.

"We know that fear and anxiety can include physiological symptoms: increased heart rate, quick breathing, muscle tension. Kids will often have headaches or bellyaches," she said. "Behaviorally, it can be seen in avoidance of anxiety-provoking situations. In some cases, kids may present as irritable or defiant. We also see changes in activity level, changes in appetite, academic performance or peer interaction."

In many children, the brain isn't wired to handle fear well, period. Manegold said the CDC estimates 7% of U.S. youth ages 17 and younger — 4.4 million of them, from all walks of life — are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at any given time.

"We can't point to an anxiety gene or a fear gene," Manegold said. "What we do know is fear and anxiety, by the clinical definition, is developed through a combination of factors. Kids that have complicated social situations, have experienced trauma, or have repeated stressors in their situation are more likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

"But it doesn't necessarily have to be the result of a trauma or repeated exposure to stress. Some kids, even going back to when they're infants, are more easily consoled and less reactive to stimulus around them."


Getting young people to talk is key to discerning their feelings and understanding their level of coping skills. This can be tricky, especially among teens who are well-known to avoid such vulnerable conversations with their parents. Manegold urges parents to broach such subjects anyway.

"One thing parents can do for teenagers is start off by telling them how you're feeling about situations. 'This makes me feel nervous, what do you think about it?'" she said. "Then, try to be open and meet their concerns or their joys or whatever they give you to help them feel heard. It may not be when they're asked directly about something, it may be some other time where they slide a little piece of information in because they feel comfortable."

Isaac Leggett and Lisa Leggett
for "Fear" Story
(Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Dwain Hebda)
Isaac Leggett and Lisa Leggett for "Fear" Story (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Dwain Hebda)

The Leggetts routinely use such tactics, with great success. Lisa said the key is dogged consistency and advises other adults not to forfeit their parenting responsibilities just because their kids don't want to talk about something or because their teen looks like he or she has it together. It's a simple philosophy that has helped guide her and her husband in raising sons of color and their daughter Carmen, 17, in increasingly volatile and uncertain times.

"We've raised confident kids, but they're teenagers," she said. "They don't want to share and they're not going to tell you if they're afraid or if they got themselves into something that's over their heads. They're not going to come to you, because they think they can handle everything. That's where as a parent you have to probe all the time."

"I know my kids are like, 'Oh my gosh, Mom, I got this.' But still, they really don't. Those are the teachable moments."


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