Q: My 18 month old daughter seems to have a fear of a lot of things from loud noises (trucks driving by to airplanes), ceiling fans, to getting in an elevator. She is fine when she is in her stroller, in the grocery cart, or being held, but she gets very very anxious if I try and put her down in public places, or just outside in the yard. She starts crying and clings on to me as tight as she can. How do I help her become more independent and ease her anxiety and fearfulness?
A: Dear heath172:
You describe very well a phase of general anxiety which is very common in children of this age. The cause of the child's fearfulness is paradoxically her increased understanding of the actual world. She has suddenly become much more aware of her own relative helplessness in the face of a thousand potential threats and dangers. And the more clingy the frightened child, the more the parent worries that the child will still cling to the parent's lap when the child is 35.
The best way to help your daughter overcome her temporary fears of ceiling fans, elevators, airplanes, etc. etc. is let her experience this scary stuff from the safety of your arms-- without your own anxiety that she will "never get over it" unless you force her onto the floor. The more you try to pry her off you, the more convinced she becomes that something alarming is surely about to happen. But by simply cuddling her in a friendly way while the airplane roars overhead, she is reassured that nothing so alarming is happening after all.
Any child of 18 months has a huge force inside propelling her to go off to explore and master the world. But in order to have the courage to do this, the child needs to feel secure that Mom is right there in the background whenever the child happens to need her. By trying to peel a clingy child off your lap just at the moment when the ceiling fan has made the child nervous, the parent introduces the idea that maybe Mom isn't going to be available during moments of insecurity. Thus your immediate goal is to reinforce the idea that Mom is right there whenever she needs you. Exactly when she needs you, of course, is often determined by the strange reasoning processes of toddlers and their quirks about ceiling fans. Soon enough, your daughter will come to see that these apparent dangers are actually harmless.
Think of yourself as storing up a sense of security in your daughter for a rainy day. Be available to her as a comfort or a pair of welcoming arms for the next six months. When you have helped her to feel secure that you are right there as home base, you will soon find that you won't be able to hold her back from her adventures.
Elizabeth Berger MD
Child Psychiatrist and author of Raising Kids with Character