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Understanding Preschooler Anxiety

Practically every child is afraid of something -- for my little girls, it's the mean-looking dog next door. But new research suggests that once kids reach preschool age, they shift from having momentary fears -- like feeling scared when they hear the dog barking -- to worrying about things even in the absence of an immediate threat. "We used to think that children younger than 7 didn't have enough awareness to worry about what was going to happen in the future," says study author Kristin Hansen Lagattuta, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis. "Now, we know that's absolutely not the case."

So don't be surprised if your child suddenly seems more anxious and fearful than usual. Help ease her mind by teaching her to manage these common fears.

What You Do: It's tempting to say, "Goblins aren't real. Don't be afraid." That might reassure some kids, but it may not work well for children ages 3 to 5. Dr. Lagattuta found that "positive pretense," psych-speak for playing along, is more effective at this age. "Instead of trying to remove your child from an imaginary world, help her put a positive spin on it," she says. "You might say, 'Oh, I'll bet that goblin is friendly and just wants to play with you."

What You Do: If your child's worry stems from a past experience -- suppose he tried to pet a dog and the dog barked in his face -- emphasize that there are ways to prevent that from happening again, says Carl Weems, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University of New Orleans. "You want your child to feel in control of the situation, rather than feeling helpless."

What You Do: Things that go bump in the night aren't the only reason preschoolers have trouble falling asleep. "Many kids have a genuine fear of the dark and sometimes even a night-light won't help," says Dr. Lagattuta. The solution: Encourage your child to recall a few things that made her smile that day, and record them in a good-memories journal for her to keep near her bed.

What You Do: Ask your child what's causing his fear, suggests Philip C. Kendall, PhD, director of the Child and Adolescent Anxiety Disorders Clinic at Temple University, in Philadelphia. Sometimes, it's obvious.

If your kid fell off his scooter yesterday, he may worry about falling off again. "But you may not know of other possible triggers, like seeing a friend get hurt at school," points out Dr. Kendall. Once you find out what situation is troubling him, help him face his fear and explain that accidents can happen, but they're really unlikely.

What You Do: "Preschoolers are starting to become conscious of what other kids think of them," says Dr. Lagattuta. And unlike older kids, they don't yet have a fully developed sense of self-worth: In other words, they don't automatically think, "She might not like me, but I'm a really fun person, so other people do." It's up to you to talk to your child about what's special about her and remind her that she has plenty of pals. That reassurance might give her the confidence to make new friends with other kids at school or the playground.

What You Do: When your child asks about a scary real-world event, it's best to address the subject rather than try to protect your child because it will only make him more anxious, says Carolyn Landis, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital, in Cleveland. The key: Put the event in perspective. "When my young child worries about something that's happening in another part of the world, I show her on a globe how far away the event is from where she is," Dr. Landis says. And if your child is upset about something on the local news, like a fire? Talk about the safeguards you've taken and ways he can help to prevent such a tragedy from happening to him. And try to keep the news off when your child is in the room.

Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Parents magazine.