understanding children Fears

To many parents, children’s fears
make no sense at all. Nevertheless,
to children, monsters lurking
in the dark or scary noises coming
from the attic are quite real.
Around your child’s second
birthday, he or she may become
frightened by things that did not
cause fear before—the neighbor’s
dog, the dark, the bathtub drain,
and loud noises.

Several factors contribute to a
child developing fears by age 2.
Children between the ages of 2 and
6 have experienced real fear or pain
from being lost, injured, or bitten.
They also have vivid imaginations
and struggle with the idea of cause
and effect. A toddler knows something
about size and shape, but not
enough to be sure that he or she
won’t be sucked down into the
bathtub drain or into a fl ushing
toilet. Older children also are aware
of dangers that they hear about or
see on TV. It’s hard to know what
is real and what is not.
Common fears

Fear of separation
Toddlers’ anxiety about separation
is an indication of growth. Before
your toddler turned 2, he or
she forgot you after you left, and
settled down quickly. Now your
child worries about and puzzles
over your departure.
Always tell your child that you
are leaving. Sneaking out decreases
trust. It may help to get your
child absorbed in an activity before
you leave. An elaborate ritual
of waving bye-bye and blowing
good-bye kisses also may help.
Preschoolers are more selfassured
than toddlers, but occasionally
experience fears about being
separated from a parent when
starting a new school or child care
arrangement, staying overnight
with a relative, or moving to a new
home. Ease into new situations
gradually. Visiting the new school
several times before the fi rst day,
or staying with your child for the
fi rst day or two can make a
big difference.

Younger children fear monsters
and snakes that lurk in the bedroom
shadows. Older children
may fear burglars and thieves. It
is not at all uncommon for children
who are 10 and 11 to still use
a night light. A gradual reduction
of light works for many families,
while some children decide on
their own to turn lights off. It is
important not to rush your child.
School-age children
have fears too

During the school-age years,
imaginary monsters disappear, but
other fears begin to surface. Schoolage
children often have to deal
with bullies, the fear of rejection
or embarrassment, and sometimes
the reality of being home alone
after school. School-agers also are
aware of TV and news events that
showcase murder, drug abuse,
kidnappings, and burglaries.

About one-third of school-age
children experience fears that
re-occur. Often these children
develop strategies that help them
cope. One common strategy
children use is to turn the TV on
when they arrive home so they
don’t hear scary noises. Other
strategies include hiding under
beds or in closets, turning all the
lights on in the house, and using
the phone for comfort and companionship.

Older kids often feel
embarrassed about feeling afraid
and are reluctant to share their
feelings. Asking specifi c questions
like “Do you have a special hiding
place? Do you walk home a certain
way? When you come home

Fear of baths
Many young children worry
about going down the drain with
the water. No amount of logical
talk will change this. Avoid letting
the water drain out while your
child is still in the tub or even in
the bathroom. If your child seems
fearful of water, you might try
letting him or her play fi rst with a
pan of water, then in the sink, and
fi nally over the edge of the tub
(don’t leave a child alone in the

Fear of dogs
Dogs are often loud, fast moving,
and unpredictable. Many children
fear them. Respect your child’s fear
of strange dogs; a child’s instincts
may be right. If you wish to introduce
your child to a friendly dog,
fi rst try sharing pictures of the dog
with your child. Next watch the
dog from a distance, and fi nally
approach the dog together. You
may want to demonstrate how to
pet the dog, but don’t force your
child to pet the dog, too. If he or she
refuses, you can try again later.

Fear of loud noises
Although your toddler loves
to pound on a toy drum, the loud
noise from a vacuum cleaner or
a hair dryer may be very frightening.
Even preschoolers can
develop fear of loud noises. Try
letting your child look at and
eventually touch things in your
home before you turn them on.
If the fear seems intense, save
“loud noise jobs” for times when
your child is rested and in a
good mood, or better yet, when
he or she is not around.

Fear of the dark
Parents often sheepishly
admit that their child sleeps
with a night light (or the room
light) on. Children can sleep
with lights on without damaging
their health. Many children
sleep with a night light well
into the school-age years.
Fear of the dark is usually
one of the last childhood
fears to be conquered.
do you check the doors?” will
help parents identify concerns
that their children might have. A
very elaborate plan for self protection
may indicate that the child is feeling
threatened and very afraid.

¦ How parents
can help
Your child’s fears depend on his
or her level of anxiety, past experience,
and imagination. If any fears
persist, give your child more time
and try to avoid events and situations
that can trigger them. Your
child may be better equipped
emotionally to deal with his or her
fears in a few months.

• Avoid lectures. It is not helpful
to ridicule, coerce, ignore, or use
logic. Think back to your own
childhood. How often did you
hear phrases like: “There is no
such thing as a monster,” “Don’t
be such a baby,” “There are no
lions or bears for miles and miles
from here,” or “Pet the nice
doggie, he won’t hurt you.” Did
statements such as these really
make you feel any

• Accept your child’s fears as
valid. Support your child any
time he or she is frightened.
Use a matter-of-fact attitude
and some reassuring words. It’s
OK to explain that monsters
don’t really live under
the bed, but don’t
expect your child to
believe it. Remember
that some fear is good.
Children should have a
healthy sense of caution.
Strange dogs and strange
people can be dangerous. As
children grow older, they begin
to have a better understanding
of cause and effect, and reality
versus fantasy. They also may
gain some fi rst-hand experience
with the object of their fear and
discover ways to control potentially
dangerous situations.
Eventually, most fears will be
overcome or at least brought
under control.

• Show your child how to cope.
Young children can learn some
coping skills that will help them
feel like they have more control
of their fear. Learning how to
take deep breaths, using their
imagination to turn a scary
monster into a funny monster,
or keeping a fl ashlight by the
bed after lights are turned off
are all good examples of coping
skills. Reading children’s books
about scary situations such as
going to bed in the dark
or having an operation
in the hospital
also can be helpful. It
is best not to force a child into
fearful situations all at once.
Often the “shock” method will
backfi re and intensify the fear.
A small dose at a time is the
best way to help a child overcome

¦ A note about
nightmares and
night terrors
One out of every four children
between the ages of 3 and 8
experiences either night terrors or
nightmares. Both of these situations
can be unnerving, but are
generally short-lived.
Night terrors generally occur
within an hour of falling asleep.
The child awakens suddenly from
a state of deep sleep in a state of
panic. He or she may scream, sit
up in bed, breathe quickly, and
stare “glassy eyed.” The child also
may seem confused, disoriented,
and incoherent. Each episode can
last from 5 to 30 minutes. A child
who experiences night terrors is
not aware of any scary thoughts
or dreams and is usually able to
go back to sleep quickly. In the
morning, the child usually doesn’t
remember waking at all. Night
terrors may occur for several years.
Generally they go away with time
and are not an indication of any
underlying emotional problems.
Nightmares generally occur in
the early morning hours. Children
who experience nightmares can
often recall the vivid details of
their scary dream and may have
diffi culty going back to sleep.
Nightmares will often center on a
specifi c problem or life event that
is troubling the child.

Parents can help by remaining
calm. Hold your child close
and talk in a soft, soothing voice.
Comfort and reassure your child.
If possible, stay close by until he or
she falls asleep. Calm, consistent
handling of nightmares or terrors
will help your child feel safe and

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