Recognizing and Acknowledging Fear
Use your child's imagination to his advantage by asking him to consider what would help him work through his fears. Adamic-Sargeant's son, Elijah, became afraid of monsters in his room when he was almost 3. "I asked him what would [help him], and he said that if he had five books in his bed, he would be fine," she says. "Every night we put five books on top of the covers at the foot of his bed, and the monsters have not been back since."
While acknowledging her fears, try to keep things light so you don't build them up either. If your child is worried that monsters may be lurking, make a ritual of checking in each closet together, let a big stuffed animal sit as sentry in the doorway, or grab a can of room deodorizer, label it "Monster Spray," and give it a squirt every night to banish all things scary.
And remember -- these fears won't last forever. Elijah Adamic-Sargeant, now 3, is nonchalant when his mom prepares smoothies in the blender. "I used to be scared of loud noises," he told her. "But now that I am big, it's okay." That's the sign of success, says Dr. Brown. "Your child has to build on these experiences to be able to say, 'I overcame it; it wasn't a big deal.' Every time they have an experience they resolve, it makes them more confident in the future."
Fear or Phobia?
While fears are a natural part of childhood, can they cross the line and become a true phobia? Not likely, say the experts. Genuine phobias in childhood are extremely uncommon, because a phobia is regarded as an irrational fear. And while most children's fears are what we'd consider "irrational" given an adult perspective, from a child's point of view, they're very reasonable. After all, we may logically know we won't go down the bathtub drain, but a child's imagination might say otherwise.
Fears that may be labeled as phobias in adults (like fear of darkness, loud noises, or even bathing) aren't considered true phobias in children. "You could call these child phobias, but they are developmentally normal -- not like adult phobias," explains Dr. Sears.
"For those normal childhood 'phobias,' parents can gradually help their children become used to things by showing them how to interact gently with whatever they fear." Pediatrician Ari Brown agrees. "Some kids have real anxiety about noises, crowds, strangers, and the dark," she says. But it's not a phobia, and you can work together to help eliminate that fear -- thus preventing it from becoming a true phobia in the future. Says Dr. Brown, "Respect the fear, address the fear, and empower the child."
Kathleen M. Reilly has two sons and lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, May 2006.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.