Researchers led by Dr Chris Askew at Kingston University in Surrey showed children aged between six and eleven pictures of flowers, caterpillars, snakes, worms and Australian marsupials, either alone or alongside a picture of an adult looking frightened. Surprisingly, the children believed that even naturally innocuous things like flowers posed a threat to them when they were shown with a scared-looking adult.
“They said they’d prefer to avoid these things after seeing them with scared faces,” says Askew. “That was even the case with the flower – that was the surprising thing, really. We’d certainly expect it for snakes, but not necessarily flowers.”
This research poses the question of whether adults can trigger unnecessary fears in children, in addition to the child’s natural anxieties.
“If a parent has a particular fear or phobia of some animal or object, that might be transferred to our children on a more subtle level than we think,” says Askew. “The parent doesn’t have to say anything, scream or run around, but if a child can read the fear in their face, that’s probably going to have some effect on how threatening they think it is and how much they are going to want to avoid it.”
So, if you’re petrified by pansies or panicked by puppies, you’re probably best off keeping it to yourself.