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.
As 4- and 5-year-olds begin to understand abstract concepts, their fears become more complex as well. They're scared of what they can see and of what lurks in their imagination -- the monster under the bed, things that go bump in the night, and what might happen when Mom and Dad aren't nearby. It's no surprise that this is the peak age for nightmares. And since preschoolers still have a hard time distinguishing fact from fantasy, their bad dreams can feel terrifyingly real.
- Answer the "what-ifs." Children this age are mostly worried about what could happen, says Dr. Garber. If your child jumps at the sight of your neighbor's dog, for example, calm her by explaining the dog's behavior. Instead of saying, "The dog won't hurt you," be specific: "The dog sniffs you to get to know you. He barks because that's how dogs talk."
- Don't overreact to nightmares. When Ryan McCaffery, 5, has a bad dream, mom Candace does her best to calm her. "Sometimes I'm just so exhausted that I let her stay with me, though," admits the Atlanta mom. But it's better to give a quick reassurance and tuck your child into her own bed; otherwise, you validate her fears.
- Look for role models. If your child is terrified of the monkey bars at the playground, encourage her to watch an older sibling or another kid around her age play on them without pressuring her to take a turn. Seeing somebody she can relate to confronting her fear may give her a shot of courage.
- Respect her feelings. Teasing your child or forcing her to confront a situation that terrifies her will probably backfire. But don't overindulge the fear either -- otherwise, you may convince her that she's truly in danger, says Dr. Burgess. If your child freaks out every time she hears thunder, for example, resist the urge to scoop her up and hold her tight. Get down on her level and talk about it instead.
Big Kid Fears
Older children realize that bad things do happen sometimes, says Dr. Hagar. What they don't yet understand is the probability of a really scary event rocking their world: a stranger climbing into their bedroom window at night, a hurricane, or gun violence in schools. But because they often hear about these things from their friends or see them on the news, they don't get a sense of perspective.
- Teach coping skills. Your child is old enough to learn relaxation techniques that will manage his physical responses to fear, like a pounding heart or churning stomach, says Dr. Garber. Encourage him to take long, slow breaths, and come up with a soothing mantra such as, "I'm safe in my bed. All the doors and windows are locked."
- Avoid media overexposure. Because children's worldview is limited, they don't know how often hurricanes hit or how many kidnappers exist. (And they pick up on more than you think when they overhear you listening to the radio or a TV program.) Even some kids' shows and video games can be too intense.
- Do talk about death. It's not unusual for kids this age to worry about when you'll die. If your child brings it up, reassure her that you intend to live a long life; you can even talk about all the good habits you follow that help keep you healthy, says child psychologist Vicki Panaccione, PhD, of the Better Parenting Institute, in Melbourne, Florida. Since your child's underlying fear is likely, "What will happen to me if my parents die?" you might tell her who would take care of her.
- Explain probability. When a scary event hits the news -- a terrorist attack or a natural disaster -- don't avoid talking about it, says Raymond Crowel, PsyD, former vice president of Mental Health America. Explain that these tragedies rarely occur but that even if something bad happened, you, his school, and the community have plans in place to keep everyone safe.
When Fears Become Phobias
People often use the words fear and phobia interchangeably, but the two problems couldn't be more different. If your kid's afraid of water, for example, he may cry at bathtime, but you can usually coax him into the tub. But a child who has a phobia about water might become hysterical just hearing you turn on the tap -- you can forget even getting him to set foot in the bathroom.
About 3 to 5 percent of kids will develop a phobia, an intense, excessive fear that lasts longer than a few months, grows out of proportion, and affects the child's ability to function. Common kid phobias include animals, insects, water, storms, darkness, and getting hurt. If your child has developed a phobia, talk to your pediatrician or a child psychologist who specializes in treating it. Don't ignore the problem or assume your child will grow out of it, since it may just get worse.
Originally published in the September 2008 issue of Parents magazine.
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