Growing up as a child of young Iranian immigrants, author and podcast host Farnoosh Torabi was raised to be distrustful. She remembers being told, “Don’t talk to strangers!” which led to her revolting against a substitute teacher who stepped into her classroom. Big, generalized fears, she realized over time, were more crippling than healthy.
Now the mother of kids ages 9 and 6, Torabi says that while on a tour for her latest book, A Healthy State of Panic, the question that keeps coming up is what we should teach our kids to be afraid of. “I’ve realized I want my kids to see certain fears as an opportunity to listen to themselves and get strategic, be proactive, and ask for help,” Torabi says, “Whereas I was just told be scared but not given ideas of what to do with fear.”
So, what types of fears are we talking about here? Scary Mommy asked Torabi to explain “healthy fear” and why it’s important.
Some Healthy Fears for Our Kids
First, Torabi says, we need to stop equating fearfulness with anxiety. “I think what fearful really means is you’re being hypersensitive, you’re calculating for risk, and you’re taking a beat,” Torabi says. “It doesn’t always mean you’re acting irrationally or freezing up. I think listening to fears can be as simple as taking a minute and reading the room.”
Going back to the concept of “stranger danger,” young Torabi was left to interpret who a stranger was. “What you actually want is for kids to recognize that when an adult does something unusual or something that makes them feel uncomfortable, they are allowed to sound an alarm. So, when your kid comes home from a sleepover, you don’t just ask, ‘How’d it go?’ You ask, ‘Were you comfortable the whole time? Did everyone play nice? Where were the parents while you were playing?'”
The idea isn’t to make kids fearful but to let them express when they know something isn’t right.
“I talk about certain big fears in the book, like rejection and loneliness. When you’re afraid of these things, good, because we don’t want to be lonely. And when we’re feeling rejected, the impulse shouldn’t be to try to conform,” Torabi says. “That fear of being rejected should tell us, and our kids, that it’s time to move on, go somewhere else, find our crowd. Instead, we too often get the message that we’re supposed to scramble to gain acceptance.”
Our job as parents, Torabi says, is not just to name fears but to tell kids what to do with them. You feel scared of an adult? Tell your parents. You feel rejected by other kids? Reach out to new friends or a trusted teacher.
Confronting Our Fears As Parents
What makes us fearful as parents can be different from person to person, depending on our own upbringing and experience. You might fear your kids falling in with the wrong crowd or leaning into substance abuse, or you might have more primal fears of injury. For Torabi, she can’t shake the fear of her children crossing streets because she worries about distracted drivers. So, she’s had to learn how to talk to her children about that in a way that makes her feel as if she’s warned them without terrifying them.
“My instinct is to be behind them yelling, ‘That’s a stop sign!” until they’re 21 years old. In my mind, it’s not irrational because cars are dangerous,” says Torabi, who tells her kids to check each way twice before crossing. “But here’s what I really try to tell them: Be afraid of other people’s miscalculations. The person behind the wheel could be speeding, running a stop sign, on their phone.”
Torabi also uses this message in a larger sense when she’s passing on healthy cautions to her kids. “My grandmother used to say, ‘Watch out for bad drivers,’ and she meant that as a metaphor,” Torabi says. “In life, sometimes people will set you up for failure. Don’t go into your day-to-day always being skeptical and distrustful, but when you sense that somebody is not being kind or fair, and you’re afraid of that — good! Listen to that fear. That person has no business being in your orbit, and you need to get away.
At 6 and 9, Torabi says her kids are too young to be told, “The world’s a scary place.” There is nothing young kids can do with that information. “But I do say, ‘You’ve got to be your biggest advocate,” Torabi says. And as they get older, I will introduce them to more consequential things, like important money decisions.
We Live in Scary Times
Torabi and I both had Cold War childhoods with the ever-present threat of nuclear war, along with things like pictures of abducted children on the back of our milk cartons. (“Literally eating fear with your cereal in the morning,” Torabi remembers.) But today’s children don’t have it any better, from horrifying wars to school shootings to cruel messages on social media.
On the practical side, Torabi has banned YouTube in her house and lectures her kids about the misinformation that comes up with any internet search. In a more general sense, “The devil’s in the details,” she says. They can listen to us wishing for a ceasefire but don’t need to hear actual war stories.
We parents will make mistakes, though. Torabi remembers crossing a street one day because she and her husband saw a person with a knife. Their youngest overheard her parents mention the weapon and flipped out. But things like that are going to happen, Torabi says, and we have to be able to reassure our children in the next breath.
And listen, if you’ve made it this far, looking for ways to not pass on emotional trauma to your kids, you’re a good parent, Torabi says. “You’re going to be fine because your head’s in the right place. You’re thinking the right things. As opposed to being the person hesitating to have children because they’re afraid their own body will change.” (Spoiler alert: It will.)
Her Last Stellar Advice
Probably my favorite, most actionable advice from Torabi is: “Finish the sentence.” Don’t just tell your child to look both ways crossing the street. “When I finish the sentence, my kids don’t have anxiety; they get it. My son especially, because he’s older, but I’ll say, ‘You’ve got to look both ways because other people might be on their phones when they’re driving.’ Then he’s like, ‘Oh, OK.'”
Torabi concludes, “If you’re not fearful as a parent, you’re probably not doing it ‘right.’ When you’re afraid as a parent, it’s coming from a place of protection. But you have to check yourself. ‘Is this my mother’s fear, or is it actually a legitimate fear for me?'”
And you should only pass fear on to your children if you can show them how to act on it in a healthy way.
“Try to rebrand fear with your kids. When fear shows up, it’s a chance to listen to your body, look around, look for help, slow down, and take a beat,” Torabi says. “Tell them to pull the siren if they need to. If there’s a bully in the room, they need to tell an authority figure. Often fear is telling you not just to look out for yourself, but for everybody else too.”