Three year-old Julian Siegel had always loved splashing in the tub, but he suddenly started insisting on taking showers. "He told us that he was scared of the bubble bath," says his mom, Sarah, of New York City. "When Julian couldn't see the bottom of the tub, he worried that it might be very deep or full of monsters."
At this age, a mile-a-minute mind can quickly kick kids' fears into overdrive. "A preschooler's imagination is really blossoming, and he can often concoct some scary explanations for things that he's not sure about," explains Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., author of Freeing Your Child From Anxiety. Experts share some of the common things that can make children anxious -- and offer ways to calm the fretting.
A preschooler's ever-expanding world is full of fascinating things to discover -- but also rife with unfamiliar scenarios. Your child might be afraid of the dark because he can't see what's around him, so he assumes something menacing is lurking nearby. "Mysterious" mechanisms can be scary too. "Fear is what happens in the gap between being exposed to something new and understanding how it works," says Dr. Chansky. That's why your child's anxieties might center on surprising, sudden noises, like the loud flush of a public toilet, or confusing contraptions such as drains and fans.
Because kids ages 3 and 4 may have difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality, a book about dragons might lead to a worry that fire-breathing monsters are behind the closet door. Your child is also starting to understand symbols, so a spider might give him the creeps just because he knows that pictures of the bug are considered spooky at Halloween. He may have trouble understanding that scary things he sees or hears about won't necessarily happen to him or someone he loves, explains clinical psychologist Tracy Moran, Ph.D., professor at the Erikson Institute, in Chicago.
Spot the Signs
While some kids might say, "That scares me" or "I don't want to do that," others are less likely to possess the language skills to express their fears. Instead, their anxiety might appear as restlessness, moodiness, and irritability, says Ira Glovinsky, Ph.D., a child psychologist in West Bloomfield, Michigan. Sometimes uneasiness also takes the form of headaches or stomach pains. If your child complains of discomfort, it's a good idea to have her pediatrician evaluate her to rule out a physical reason. If the aches happen at the same time each day or in connection with a specific event, anxiety could be the culprit, says Dr. Moran.
Take It Step By Step
It's tempting to avoid your child's terror triggers, but doing so can make them seem even bigger. Instead, help your child get used to a scary situation in increments. For example, if your son is freaked out by grown-ups in costumes, let him eye the Easter Bunny from a comfortable distance, suggests Dawn Huebner, Ph.D., author of What to Do When You Worry Too Much. Likewise, if your child shrieks at the sight of your neighbor's dog, maybe he can watch him from a window before saying hello from a safe perch on Dad's shoulders. You can also "preview" a potentially surprising situation by talking about it ("When we push the handle, the toilet sucks the water with a loud 'swoosh' and then fills again").
Focus on Fun
Playful approaches can go a long way toward reducing anxieties. If your child is afraid of the dark, read bedtime stories by flashlight, or buy glow-in-the-dark toys and devise a scavenger hunt. If she's worried about a monster under her bed, ask her to give him a makeover: Drawing the creature making a silly face could help her feel less afraid. Dr. Chansky also recommends staging a paper-bag puppet show together, in which your child can defeat her fears by driving that monster out of town.
Help Him Relax
By age 4, kids have the patience and body awareness to practice deep-breathing exercises. "I teach kids to lie on their back, squeeze their eyes, lift their shoulders to their ears, and then relax and exhale," says Dr. Glovinsky. Help your child practice this "body-scan" technique from head to toe a few minutes a day. Once he's mastered it, he may be able to soothe himself before his fears spiral.
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Parents magazine.