When our children are afraid, parents will do whatever they can to help them feel better. If children struggle with fear in an ongoing way, it can create a problem for the whole family. Parents want to both comfort their child and make sure that they gain the skills to manage in the world. But how?
The popular movie Dune holds a surprising answer: the content of the famous Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear. The litany may be fiction, but it’s packed with solid psychological advice. If parents use Dune, they can engage their child’s imagination and teach them how to overcome fear.
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.The Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear
For kids who are in late elementary school or older, the litany against fear is a great breakdown of the psychology around emotional regulation. In Dune, the Bene Gesserit are an ancient order of wise women who have obtained near-magical powers. A key foundation of their power is their ability to manage their fear. Dune’s main character Paul Atreides is taught this power over his fear by his Bene Gesserit mother. The litany against fear shows up in the movie, but it is repeated many times in the original book.
Let’s break down the litany to see why it’s good psychology:
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear starts in the amygdala which rapidly signals danger to the rest of the body, initiating the fight or flight response. In humans, our higher cognitive brain can modulate that fear based on what we’ve learned. That’s why we can enjoy fear from an amusement park haunted house. But real fear or facing a life-threat has a way of shutting down our higher cognitive brain as the fight-or-flight response takes over. The brain becomes flooded by fear; the prefrontal cortex goes quiet and is incapable of strategic or complex thinking.
That kind of fear can really be understood as a “mind-killer” because it shuts down our mind’s ability to think. Under fear’s influence, we actually default back to a more animal response than a human one.
After we go through the entire litany, it becomes clear that the first line here is better understood as “I must not give in to fear” or “I must be afraid of my fear.”
This is why what most parents were taught about fear only works sometimes. Almost everyone raising kids today was taught to “tough it out” as their main and often only strategy. Toughness is highly valued in many cultures, and it’s a primary goal for Americans. But being tough is not strength.
Toughness is a way of avoiding fear
Being tough is actually a way of avoiding fear. Rather than facing our fear, we just push ourselves past it. And that CAN work sometimes. When it does, it’s like the child who is afraid to jump off the diving board. Once she does she realizes it was fun and is no longer afraid. But toughness only works up to a point.
When fear is great enough, no amount of toughness can stop the cascade in the brain. In fact, if we try to beat “mind-killing ” or meltdown level fear with toughness, not only do we lose, but we convince ourselves that the fear really is as big and bad as we thought. Instead of avoiding fear, facing it is the way through, something Dune gets right.
I will face my fear.
I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
Few themes in modern psychology and neuroscience over the last decade have been more prominent than this: that avoiding negative emotions tends to make them stronger. This is particularly true with anxiety and fear, where several important therapies are based around helping people tolerate exposure to their fear in order to gradually lessen it.
In fact, research in positive psychology and the science of happiness find that sitting with our negative emotions tends to lessen them. And that actually makes us happier. Facing our fear is the way to go, but not if it floods us and triggers the “mind-killer” response.
That’s why permitting fear to pass over us and through us is key. This mindfulness based action reminds us that we are separate from our fear: we can observe our fear and let is pass us by. We can experience it without being damaged by it.
(Please note: this is not good advice for processing traumatic memories. Please work on trauma-based fears in yourself or your child with a professional therapist.)
Only I will remain.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
This last step in the litany harnesses mindfulness to consolidate learning. By turning “the inner eye to see its path” we can process our experience of fear, including it’s successful resolution. That’s when we learn that “where the fear has gone there will be nothing”—the fear has truly left us.
And what more powerful statement of confidence and victory can there be than this: “only I will remain.” That is what facing our fears mindfully and processing them teaches us: we remain.
Now imagine talking about fear and then watching the movie Dune with your kids. Imagine their shoulders straightening as they see themselves as young and courageous characters Paul or Chani. Perhaps they will face their fears and find that they remain.
Portions of this post originally appeared on Forbes.com. This does not constitute medical advice but is only for educational purposes.