Toddlers, preschoolers, and fear
It's normal for young children to be fearful. After all, anxiety is a natural condition that helps us cope with new experiences and protects us from danger.
Toddlers and preschoolers are often frightened of very specific things: bugs, dogs, the dark, clowns, or even the vacuum cleaner. Sometimes their fears are broader – many are afraid of new situations or meeting new people.
Your child is especially vulnerable to fear at this age because of his highly active imagination. (That's why he might be terrified of make-believe creatures or obsessed with unlikely disasters.) It's also normal for him to obsess over the thing that frightens him by showing fascination with it, modeling it in play, drawing pictures of it, or talking about it incessantly. It's his way of working through the issue.
What you can do to ease your child's fears
Most of your child's fears will fade as she becomes more secure in her world – and better able to distinguish between reality and fantasy. In the meantime, you can try the following strategies to help your child learn to manage her fears, but don't expect a quick fix – it can take months, or even years, for your child to conquer a fear.
Acknowledge her fears. They may seem silly and irrational to you, but they're very real and serious to her. Try not to smile or laugh when she wants to check for monsters under the bed or won't go outside because she's scared of the neighbor's poodle. By reassuring and comforting her, you demonstrate that it's okay to have fears and that there are helpful ways to deal with them.
"Try to depersonalize the fear by getting your child to talk about it or label what's making her scared," says William Coleman, a behavioral pediatrician at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. "Fears won't go away if you ignore them."
Trying to convince your child that there isn't any reason to be afraid will only backfire. You'll probably just make her more upset if you say, "It's okay, the dog won't hurt you. There's nothing to be afraid of." Instead, try saying, "I understand that the dog frightens you. Let's walk past her together. If you don't want to do that, I'll hold you while she walks past us."
If you think your child's fear stems from angry feelings or anxiety over a new situation – such as the arrival of a new sibling or starting preschool – give her ways to express her feelings through pretend play. Or guess at the feeling in a nonjudgmental way, says pediatrician Barbara Howard, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on psychosocial child and family health. Say, "I know you might sometimes wish this baby would go away, but it won't be long before he's really fun to play with."
Use a comfort object. Both toddlers and preschoolers can get a great deal of comfort out of clutching a raggedy baby blanket or well-worn teddy bear. These objects can offer an anxious child lasting reassurance, especially during transitions like getting dropped off at preschool or tucked in for the night.
"Loveys" can also make it easier for some young children to manage potentially scary situations, like meeting new people, attending a playgroup, or visiting her doctor. So allow your child to hold on to that special toy or blanket, and don't make her feel babyish for wanting to hang on to it. She's likely to stop carrying around that threadbare monkey by the time she turns 4. By then, she'll probably have learned other ways to soothe herself when she's scared.
Explain, expose, and explore. A scared toddler or preschooler can sometimes get over what's worrying her if you provide a simple, rational explanation. For example, you may put an end to her fear of being sucked down the drain along with the bathwater by saying, "Water and bubbles can go down the drain, but rubber duckies and children can't." Or explain that an ambulance has to make a really loud noise so that other cars know to clear the way.
For some children, a demonstration can be reassuring. Your child may be relieved to see that although a vacuum cleaner can suck up crumbs, sand, and dirt, it can't inhale her toys or her father's toes. A walk at dusk can help make nighttime seem more magical than scary. If your child trembles at the thought of getting a haircut, let the hairdresser snip a strand or two of your own hair to show that it doesn't hurt.
If her fear is fueled by past experiences – like getting a vaccination, for instance – don't lie or sugarcoat things. But don't dwell on the bad stuff, either. Gently acknowledge that the shot may sting at first, but remind her that it will be over quickly and then the two of you can do something fun afterward. It's important to stay with your child during any painful procedure to show that you support the treatment and haven't abandoned her, says Howard.
You can also help your child learn about frightening things from a safe distance. Howard suggests carefully exposing preschool-age children to potentially scary experiences through books or shows when you're by her side. Such limited exposure provides a safe context to deal with fears. (Of course, don't expose to your child to books, shows, or movies that are horrifying, gory, or otherwise age-inappropriate.)
For example, if your child is afraid to ride a bike because she doesn't want to fall and skin her knees, then it might help to read stories about a young child who masters riding a bike without injuries. Similarly, she may get over her fear of monsters under the bed if she sees a show about a child who befriends fun monsters. If she's scared of animals, a trip to a petting zoo might help.
Problem-solve together. You and your child can find ways to increase her sense of power and control over things that worry her. To banish bedtime fears, for example, you could try putting a nightlight in her room, appointing a guard (a beloved stuffed animal), using "monster spray" (water in a spray-bottle), or a choosing a magic phrase to ward off unwelcome visitors. Just don't expect her to overcome his fears right away, says Coleman.
Practice through pretend play. If your child is terrified of the doctor, try role-playing what happens at the doctor's office – letting her play the part of the doctor could help her feel empowered. If she shrinks at the sight of strangers, she may feel less frightened if she rehearses such encounters using dolls or stuffed animals. If people in costumes scare her, dress up together to ease her fears.
Preschoolers may also be able to relieve their anxiety by playing with friends. Dressing up as noisy monsters or creating a haunted house can be fun, rather than frightening, when your child feels she's the one in control and has buddies close by.
Don't share your own fears. If your child sees you break out in a sweat because you're afraid of flying, or if you cringe when you walk into the dentist's office, then she's likely to feel scared of these things too. Try to work through your own anxieties, or at least downplay them.
It's okay, however, to confess that you didn't like going to the dentist as a kid, though you went to keep your teeth healthy. It helps a child to know she's not alone, and that you, too, learned to overcome something unpleasant or scary.
What to watch out for
Although a certain amount of fear and anxiety is necessary and normal, some young children need extra help to keep fear from becoming too consuming. Talk to your child's doctor or a therapist who works with children if:
- Your child's fears routinely interfere with his normal daily activities – like if he won't go to bed because he's afraid of the dark or insists on staying home for fear of seeing a dog.
- His fears intensify over time, which could be a sign he has a genuine phobia (an intense and persistent irrational fear) or an anxiety disorder.
- Your child gets so fearful that he simply can't be calmed.
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