Two- and 3-year-olds are creatures of habit. Any unfamiliar sight or sound -- a strange animal getting too close, ear-splitting sirens -- can send them into a panic. Often, toddlers are afraid of harmless stuff, such as the vacuum cleaner. The reason: Even though they're aware of their environment, they don't yet understand everything that happens in it, says psychologist Kim Burgess, PhD, director of the Pediatric Psychology Center, in Rockville, Maryland. (Your child may know that a vacuum cleans up dirt, but he's not sure it won't suck him up too!) Toddlers' fears often stem from one scary experience, adds Kristy Hagar, PhD, coauthor of Seven Steps to Help Your Child Worry Less. For example, a child who cried when his birthday balloons popped might become afraid of all balloons.
- Play detective. If your kid can't tell you what's scaring him, look for clues. Jennifer Bosavage, of Huntington, New York, couldn't figure out why her 2-year-old son sometimes panicked when he got dressed -- until she noticed that it happened only when he wore shirts that button. "He couldn't undo buttons yet, so I think he felt trapped in his shirts," she says.
- Be creative. Experiment with ways to help your child feel safer. For toddlers, the more visual the strategy, the better. If he's afraid of being sucked down the bathtub drain, cover it with a washcloth or an upside-down cup, says Dr. Hagar.
- Change your child's perception. If he screams at the sight of bugs, read him books about friendly ones or draw pictures of them. When he stops fearing the idea of bugs, he may feel more brave around real ones, says Stephen W. Garber, PhD, coauthor of Monsters Under the Bed.
- Clear up false beliefs. Sure, you know that a haircut is no big deal. But that's because you understand that hair doesn't bleed and the stylist won't snip your ears. The more your toddler knows, the less he'll worry.