Childhood Fears, Explained: What Science Says About The Things That Scared Us Most As Kids
Remember all of the things you were scared of as a kid? As adults, some of our childhood fears explained tell us that many of the things that terrified us in our youth did so supposedly because of our own imaginations — but it turns out that there's a little more to it than that. A recent AskReddit thread asked users what they were scared of most as kids, and I couldn't help but notice one thing about it: A lot of us had similar fears. Just take a look at the list of things that scared you as a kid — the monster under bed or in the closet, the dark, something chasing you up the stairs... the list goes on. You're not alone. Why did so many of us experience these specific fears? Was it simply a matter of an active imagination running wild, or does it go deeper than that?
Even as adults, we're all scared of something. And there's usually a reason why, right? For example, after a freaky experience in my childhood, I refuse to this day to pass a mirror in the dark. I also won't have any mirrors in my bedroom. Look at your own fears, and I'd be willing to bet that something you experienced caused them to manifest.
Similar to how our dreams can have meanings, so can our fears. We tend to dismiss the fears of children as nonsensical and irrational; but kids have a mind of their own, just like adults, and it turns out there's an explanation behind some of their most common fears. Whether it's science or folklore, these common childhood fears all exist for a reason.
Many of us would throw a fit when our parents told us it was time for bed. But why did bedtime freak us out so much? This explanation has a fascinating cultural and evolutionary backstory: In the western culture, children sleep alone; however, in many other cultures, infants and young kids sleep in the same room — and sometimes in the same bed — as one or more of their caregivers. And in these cultures, bedtime protest doesn't really occur. According to some, this stems from our history as hunter-gathers.
Until about 10,000 years ago, we lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle — during which time a child alone in the dark was actually in danger of falling prey to hungry predators. For this reason, it was the norm for children not to be left alone, including at bedtime. So, children may be scared of bedtime because we were originally conditioned not to be alone in the dark when we're going to sleep.
Baths, Pools, And Bodies Of Water
As a child, there was a point when pools scared me for a while after I'd heard about a little girl drowned in one. Water can be overwhelming for a kid, particularly when you can't see what's happening underneath its surface; it's scary for much the same reason that the dark is: As William E. Lyons put it in his book Emotion, it's about "the absence of knowledge" — that is, "fear arising because one does not know what might be out there in the dark and because one thinks that there might be something to injure or startle one." I mean, look at the Are You Afraid of the Dark? episode "The Tale of the Dead Man's Float." How could pools not scare you after that?
Plus, when you're dealing with a body of water, there may very well be a ghost story hidden in there somewhere — like the very popular Ghost of Stow Lake, in San Francisco, California. Spooky.
Monsters In Hiding
I used to be scared of hanging my feet over the edge of my bed, lest someone — or something — should grab me and pull me under. Don't kids know that the creepy monster they imagine, with pointy fingers and sharp teeth and hallow circles where their eyes should be, are just a product of their imagination?
Actually, they don't. When children are playing, what do we encourage? Make believe! They constantly rely on their imaginations and are immersed for much of the day in a fantasy world. So why would we assume they'd know how to shut this off when they needed to? It makes perfect sense that the same imagination which brought a child's dolls to life also created the scary monster under the bed.
Another explanation is that depending on age, a child might be at the point where they're starting to learn there are things in the world that can hurt them.
A little bit of separation anxiety is normal; heck, we get it as adults. But as kids, some of us experienced an anxiety so severe we almost couldn't function. All we could do was cry and scream. Why?
There are a few explanations behind this one. One is that a child fears that in their absence, something terrible will happen to their parents. Another reason separation terrified us might have been because we worried of some unpredictable event that would prevent us from ever being reunited again. Other kids actually have nightmares about separation, which can bleed into their lives when they're awake.
When I was a kid, some of us lived in heavily wooded areas by dint of the neighborhoods in which our homes were located. As such, when you got off the bus and headed home, you didn't walk — you ran.
What was so scary about walking alone through the woods? We've got lots of folklore and urban legends to explain this one, and they're not limited to our culture. Take, for example, the Japanese urban legend of Kuchisake-Onna. The story says that when you're walking alone, you'll run into a beautiful woman wearing a mask. She'll ask you, "Am I pretty?" If you say no, she kills you with a pair of scissors. If you say yes, she removes her mask to reveal her mouth — slit from ear to ear. Then, she does the same thing to you.
This story isn't quite as old as some — it first arose in the 1970s — but child abduction has long been an issue for centuries, so the fear arises from something very real.
Like I mentioned earlier, I didn't like mirrors as a kid, and I certainly don't love them as an adult. They're especially scary in the dark, and I know I'm not alone here. The legend of Bloody Mary certainly doesn't help this one. While the details vary, the basic premise of the story is that you go into the bathroom, turn off the light, and lock the door. You light a candle, look into the mirror, and call Bloody Mary's name three times. Supposedly, she shows herself to you, at which point you pee your pants and run away.
It turns out that "seeing" Bloody Mary is actually an optical illusion, but in some ways, maybe that's even freakier: You may not be seeing a monster... but you also can't trust your eyes to tell you what you actually are seeing.
Vacuum Cleaners And Toilets
Odds are you were really young when you had these fears (like, toddler-aged); but what gives? According to Parents.com, toddlers are "creatures of habit." A strange noise or unfamiliar sight could freak them out. This might explain why things as commonplace as vacuum cleaners and toilets could scare them. A child might be aware that these items belong in the home; but they also might watch a vacuum suck up dirt, and think it'll suck them up too. Same goes for the toilet: How do they know they won't get flushed down?
While it's true that what scares one person doesn't necessarily scare another, it appears that many of the fears we all have in common are universal for a reason: They go back to our shared experiences, either culturally or evolutionarily (or both). So the next time you find yourself avoiding a mirror in the dark? Well, at least you can take comfort in the fact that we're all in it together.