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Toddlers have all sorts of fears. While we feel for them in their terrors, it’s important to realize that fear is a good thing. It’s an emotion that protects us when facing new situations that could be dangerous. Fear tells us to be careful, to go slow, not to get too close.
A toddler’s fear is no different. His fear is a reaction to something that feels like a threat. Our job as parents is to provide support and security as our children work through their fears. One way to do this is to acknowledge a toddler’s fears, even when being afraid of the vacuum cleaner, for instance, seems silly or even humorous to us as adults.
Toddlers tend to have fears because their imaginations are so active at this age. They may become obsessed with a fear, drawing it, acting it out, talking about it, making it the theme of their play. This is normal and good. Your child is exploring the issue and working things out.
As children become more confident about the world and learn to tell the difference between things that are real or imaginary, their fears begin to fade. Parents should be patient. The process of getting over a fear can take a long time, sometimes even years.
Common Childhood Fears
Here are some common childhood fears broken down by age.
Infant and Toddler Fears:
- Loud noises (toilets, vacuum cleaners)
- Sudden movement
- Large objects
- Separation from parents
- Changes to the appearance of the home, such as a new carpet or painting, or furniture placed in a different position or moved to a different room
- Night noises
School Years Fears
- Spiders and snakes
- Thunder and lightning
- Natural disasters
- Being home by themselves
- Angry teachers
- Frightening news stories or television shows
- Accidents, illness, and death
- Shots and medical procedures
- Personal failure or rejection
Acknowledge The Fear
Laughing off a child’s fears is not helpful. You know there is no monster under your toddler’s bed. But it can help your daughter deal with her fright if you show her that you know she’s afraid. That it’s okay to be afraid sometimes.
You don’t want to say, “Don’t be silly, there’s no such thing as monsters,” because this will only make her try harder to convince you that the danger is real. And to her, that monster is absolutely real. In brushing off your child’s fears, she may end up getting the wrong message from you: that danger disappears if you ignore it.
Instead, the two of you might look under the bed for that monster together. If both of you do that every night for a week, you’ll be doing a great job of teaching your child how to confront a fear and deal with it. You’ll also be letting your child know that you don’t discount her very strong feelings. This is important to building trust between you and your child.
Now imagine you’re walking together and your child is terrified of the neighbor’s dog. Don’t say, “That dog won’t hurt you. He’s gentle as anything!”
That is more likely to make your child cry and shake even harder.
Rather, you might say, “I know how scared you are of that dog. Let’s hold hands and walk past it together. Or if that’s too scary, you can stand behind me while the dog goes past us.”
In this way you are teaching your child that fear is real but that there are ways to deal with that fear.
Face Fear With A Lovey
Having you close is comforting to a frightened child. An object or “lovey” can be an additional source of comfort. The lovey may be a blanket or a beloved teddy bear or doll. Such comfort objects can help your child manage her fears. This is especially true of those times when you cannot be with your child, such as when you leave her with a babysitter, or when she is in daycare or nursery school. The lovey can also comfort the child at night, when you are in a different room.
You don’t have to worry about the child becoming too attached to a comfort object. Most children give these up on their own. For one thing, they know without you telling them that it’s babyish for a child in grade school to carry a teddy bear to school. Also, at a certain point, a child will conquer most fears and learn other coping methods for soothing those fears that remain.
Talk It Through, Demonstrate
Sometimes children don’t see what you logically know to be true. Logically, for instance, you know your toddler can’t fit through the bathtub drain. But she doesn’t know that until you tell her so. Up to that point, all she knows is that she’s terrified she’s going to get sucked down the drain, never to be seen again. So you have to tell her: “The drain lets the dirty water go out of the bathtub. But you and your bath toys are too big to fit through those teensy holes in the drain.”
Sometimes it’s more helpful to show how things work, rather than explain the logic. You can show your child, for example, that water will go through a sieve, but that your hand will not. A toy will not go through, either.
Loud noises may frighten your child. Something that is loud seems very powerful to a child. That is why it is helpful to show your child that the vacuum is loud, but that it can’t pick up anything big. It’s just not that powerful.
You can demonstrate how this works. Let her watch as you try to suck up a large toy with the vacuum. The toy won’t go in. Next, place your hand in front of the vacuum to show your child that nothing much happens. The vacuum may pull at your skin, but your hand won’t detach.
You are teaching your child by demonstration that large items cannot disappear inside a vacuum cleaner. Vacuum cleaners are not that powerful. They’re not made to do that sort of thing.
By the same token, you can demonstrate to your child that people can’t get flushed down the noisy toilet. The hole isn’t large enough to admit a human being. As for the loud noise? It’s just a noise. Let your child rip up pieces of toilet paper and practice flushing them together.
Ambulances can frighten children because they are loud and the sound they make gives a sense of urgency. Explain to your child that an ambulance has to be loud so that cars will move out of the way. That’s how sick people get to the hospital quickly, where doctors can help them.
All these examples use a combination of show and tell. You show your child how things work. You tell your child why the things she fears cannot happen.
More Ways to Show and Tell
Some children are afraid of the doctor. Some doctors, sensitive to a child’s fears, will place the scary stethoscope on the chest of the child’s doll, first, before listening to the child’s chest.
Is the child scared of the barber? A parent can have the barber cut a strand of his hair first, to show the child that a haircut doesn’t hurt.
Take a walk together as the sun is setting and then continue the walk as it becomes dark, going back the way you came. The only thing that has changed is that the sun has gone down. Everything else is exactly the same as it was when you started out: the tree, that crack in the sidewalk, a fire hydrant—it’s all the same stuff, but in the dark.
Some fears are grounded in past experience. If your child had a shot at the doctor’s office, he’s right to be afraid to go there. Something happened there that hurt. He’s made an association between the doctor’s office and pain.
Talk about that together and acknowledge that something painful happened there. But tell him it’s important he go and that you will stay with him the entire time. Tell him there will be a reward after that, because going to the doctor is such a big challenge. And make sure you follow through on that reward, whether it’s an ice cream cone, a sticker, or something else.
Read About That Fear
If your child must have a medical procedure such as a tonsillectomy, you might try reading a book to her on the subject. This can help to prepare your child for this new and scary experience by giving her a safe way to talk about things way before they happen. You can use this same technique to guide your child through other fears, as well. Is your child afraid of swimming? Read your child a book about a boy who was afraid of swimming but conquered his fears.
General Tips on Dealing with Children’s Fears
Teaching children to overcome fears means teaching them to manage those fears. Here are some general tips and guidelines on teaching kids how to cope with fear on their own:
- Talk about scary things before they occur. Show him how he can stay calm
- Talk about the difference between real and imaginary things
- Explain how scary things (vacuum, toilet, bathtub drain) work
- Tell the truth. Shots hurt. But we have to have them sometimes and we have to be brave. If you tell the truth, your child will come to trust your judgment. If you show bravery and ask it of your child, you’ll be showing him that bravery is the right way to handle shots.
- Be calm in front of your child, even when you are frightened. You are demonstrating that fears can be dealt with calmly. You’re also giving your child a feeling of security and safety—something he very much needs. Caregivers should always remain calm around their charges.
- Tell or read stories of brave children who overcame fears and obstacles.
- Reward your child’s efforts to overcome his fears.
What is your child’s biggest fear?
How do you reward your child for being brave?
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