A child’s learned fear at the sight of a hypodermic needle

This essay is not an instruction manual for how to put your son or daughter to sleep. (Or if it is, please do not take it seriously.) It is about learning and memory.

The example I will be using is about a certain learned fear at the sight of a needle, but you can extrapolate this principle from other things that children learn from the media and their parents, such as allergies. 

This particular case is also relevant to our knowledge today on how children learn best— through operant conditioning.

1. Background:

This fear was first observed when I was 7 years old. I had a bad reaction to a trivalent vaccination, so my mother asked me to walk into the bathroom and look at the needle of her insulin syringe. The response was instant:

“What is that?”

I didn’t scream at my mother or run away, which would be normal for a seven-year-old. I froze, staring at the little orange end of the needle in front of my eyes. It felt like there were two needles stuck in my brain: one in the front of my forehead and one by the base of my skull. I felt a lot of fear. In fact, I remember it to this day—it was one of my first learned fears.

2. Solving the Problem:

My mother had wanted me to learn that the needle is something harmless and routine in my mother’s life, so she could take care of me more easily in the future with insulin shots and other medical treatments.

 This didn’t work. I still cried whenever I saw a needle for years afterward, but I never told anyone about it. My mother didn’t notice I was still scared.

3. Related Implications:

My mother recognized the feeling of fear in her son and attached the needle to it. 

At this age I was very susceptible to operant conditioning and fear conditioning, as any seven-year-old would be. But it was normal for me to have a bad reaction to any kind of vaccination. 

Almost all children have a bad reaction to a vaccine of some sort, even if they don’t show it. Some children even die from vaccines. 

It is reasonable for a child who reacts so intensely to a vaccination (and other intense stresses) not to react well when confronted by something they associate with that stress later in life, especially if it’s something with which they cannot cope and usually run away from or scream at.

4. One Key Difference:

A child today does not know what a needle is. 

They see it for the first time at about age 2 or 3, and by age 5, they are taught what a needle is (at least this is how it’s portrayed to them in television or movies). 

An adult, who has seen needles all of their life, rarely has a reaction to them any more than they would have after seeing a clown or man with a gun.

5. The Problem:

At this point, I want to explain a problem that I have with today’s children, which is evident in my example. 

The problem is that it is possible for children to develop irrational fears (of the media) and learn them from the adults around them. 

These fears can be difficult to get rid of because the people who instill them do not recognize the fear themselves and thus do not remedy it by exposing the child to what they fear. In my case, it was my mother who taught me to be afraid of needles. 

I think she did this well. It didn’t happen that way to me in the media, it happened with my mother.

6. Today:

As society evolves and learns more about things like fear learning and operant conditioning, we learn that there are more effective ways of teaching children things than frightening them or exposing them to negative stimuli (like TV). 

We also have television, with what some may call a bad agenda and others may call an agenda of education. This is where my concern comes in: the problem of a child learning the wrong thing from a movie or television show.

 There are many other examples I could use for this problem, but one example I would like to use is SpongeBob SquarePants .

7. SpongeBob:

I have seen SpongeBob SquarePants at least 30 times, so I know about the episode where SpongeBob wakes up screaming from a nightmare.

 Squidward tries to “cure” him of his irrational fear by showing him scary things, like a man with a gun and a spider in its web. 

The end result is that SpongeBob is now afraid of both things, whereas before he was only afraid of the spider.


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