My daughter and I tested our mettle against the cold, hard grip of fear during a trip to one of Japan’s winter playgrounds.
By Dulce Zamora
Have you ever been paralyzed by fear? So scared to do something that it keeps you from doing something fun? Or, do you know someone that fits this description? In a two-part blog series, I will explore the issue of fear and what we can possibly do about it. I’ll include experiences my family and I have while holidaying in the Japanese island of Hokkaido.
We’re in Niseko, Hokkaido for Spring Break where flurries have steadily graced a landscape of resplendent white fields, and tall, leafless birch trees. It is the first time ever that my girls, S and J, are seeing snow. They are beside themselves, squealing with delight as they throw snowballs, slide down high snowbanks, make snow angels, and attempt to make a snow man. (“Mommy,” the girls say, “It’s not like the cartoons where they roll the snow and it gets bigger.”)
On our first full day here, we decided to go snow tubing. (That’s when you coast down a snowy hill with a rubber donut.) At the top of the hill, I sat down on my tube and had a twinge of fear: Could I fall off the side? Could I topple over? What would happen if my donut spun around and I went backward? I took a deep breath, thrust myself forward, fully expecting the free-falling sensation in my stomach. It never came. My donut did turn around and made me glide backward. Instead of discomfort, however, I felt the wind in my hair, and the pure joy that came with preparing to face my enemy, but never actually encountering it. I found myself releasing a celebratory “Woohoo!”
After we all took turns sliding downhill, we boarded a moving walkway upward. My 9-year-old daughter, J, froze as she looked down at the slide. She refused to sit in her tube.
“It’s too scary,” she said.
“What is?” I asked.
“Going down the hill.”
“What part scares you?” I asked. “Does it feel like we’re up too high?”
After much prodding, J said she did not like the feeling in her tummy as she slid down. Neither did she care for going too fast.
“I’m curious what would happen if you were going too fast,” I asked. “Does it look like you could easily fall off the edge, or run into anything?”
She examined the high snowbanks on both edges of the slide, and eyed the empty field downhill. She then said, “No.”
“And what would happen if you get that funny feeling in your tummy again?” I asked. “Would it hurt your organs, and make them get all mixed up inside so your heart is down there and your stomach is up there?”
“Help!” I said in a squeaky voice. “My tummy is in my throat!”
We both laughed.
“Remember that I love you, and I wouldn’t let you do anything that is too dangerous,” I said. “Plus, you see that staff person there? He’s here to make sure everyone is safe.”
“You don’t have to go again if you don’t want to,” I continued. “But you do need to get off this hill. The only way is to ride down. Do you want to go together?”
J collapsed to her knees and cried. She pounded her fists into the ground. “I want to go, but I can’t! Why do I have to be scared?!”
“It’s normal to be afraid, ” I said. ” I feel it sometimes, too.”
I shared my own fears about tubing. J said she understood, but it was not enough to convince her to go. My husband, Noel, came and hung out with J, while I slid down with my tube to spend time with my 11-year-old daughter, S. We went up and down the slide, cheering each other on.
When our time was almost up, I told J we had to go. She seemed to understand, but was unwilling to commit to riding downhill. In one quick motion, I put a hand around her waist and sat us both down on my tube. She protested but it was too late. We were already sliding down the hill.
“Are you okay?” I asked as we stepped off the tube and walked toward the lodge.
She nodded, but said, “I still didn’t like it.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “We don’t have to like everything. You don’t have to do it again.”
Since J was scheduled to take snowboard lessons with her sister the next day, I added: “Tomorrow, when you go snowboarding, remember that you can learn to control your speed. Listen to the instructor, and he or she will tell you how to do it.”
J said she was looking forward to it, and then we all went to get choux creme and ice cream at the Takahashi Farm Milk Kobo in Niseko. (More on this at the end.)
Tools Instead of Tears for Fears
At the end of the day, J felt heard and supported despite her fear. I am no expert, but I have been in touch with family therapists, I’ve spoken with my girls’ school counselors and teachers, and I’ve been reading books such as How to Help Your Anxious Teen by Sheila Achar Josephs, PhD, and The Explosive Child by Ross W. Greene, PhD. All these resources might seem overkill, but they are what we have needed to cope with our recent international move from the U.S. to Singapore. When you take away everyone’s support system, you need to replace it with something. In our case, I’m committed to helping our family build resilience muscles.
Of course people need not leave the country to experience fear, and to build resilience. Here are some of the lessons. I’ve learned that could help anyone stuck with this joy-sucking emotion:
- Listen. We are often quick to judge, or to give advice when we see fear. “That’s nothing to be scared of” or “I can’t believe you can’t do this” is something that we often tell ourselves or others. If we start out with the approach that we are doing something wrong, we lose the opportunity to really understand the problem, and to figure out solutions for it. When we listen, we open ourselves and others up to the possibility of progress. Plus, when we make an effort to be kind, there are less walls to break down.
- Get to know the specifics. What is the particular fear? What are you/they afraid of? In my case, my initial fear of going downhill led me to quickly assess the safety of the environment. I determined that it was a low-risk activity. That determination helped me relax and have fun. In J’s case, she was scared of going too fast. She did not like the funny feeling in her tummy when going downhill. When we found out the particulars, we looked at each individual fear and tried to rationalize it: How likely is that to happen? If it does happen, what would that mean? Who can help? Answering specific questions can bring the fears out of heads and into the real world. It’s kind of like a fire drill. Fires can be scary, but when we figure out how to prepare for one, we know what to do in case of an actual emergency.
- Talk openly about fears on a regular basis. When we discuss fears as part of everyday conversation, it reduces the shame in being afraid. Fear becomes a normal thing that we don’t have to hide or feel bad about. Talking about it also shows that you recognize yourself and your loved one as important. It shows you care. “If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive,” says Brenee Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, who has studied courage, shame, vulnerability, and empathy. She has also authored books such as Daring Greatly, and The Power of Vulnerability. (I love all of her books and Ted Talks.)
- Acknowledge fears, but also be realistic. In past conversations, J knew we would not force her to do anything she was totally uncomfortable with, unless there was a safety concern. We discussed that her wellbeing and the wellbeing of others are important, too. This will mean she won’t always get her way. For example, she couldn’t stay up in the hill forever. We had a one hour time limit to be there. Plus, it was much too cold to remain standing there for a long time. So I gently directed her body toward the tube to ride down with me, even though that was not what she wanted. Because I had listened to her concerns earlier, and because she knew safety was a concern, J wasn’t that upset that I brought her down the hill without her full consent.
J’s willingness to work with me was a marked difference from a few months ago, when many situations ended in meltdowns (mine and hers), shouting matches, hurt feelings, and tears. Back then, we didn’t have some of the tools we have now to work together. We don’t claim to have it all together now, but we do feel closer, and a bit more sane.
A Sweet and Savory Ending
After tubing, we visited the Niseko Takahashi Farm Milk Kobo. Together, we tried the choux creme puffs, and ice cream (cookies and cream, strawberries and cream, and raspberry). The dairy tasted rich and fresh, like it was recently milked from a cow. We planned to make return visits to try the other baked treats. So stay tuned for those!
The start to our holiday in Hokkaido may not have been smooth, but the first day definitely had a sweet ending.