Toddlers exhibit many fears, and it can be tough to know how to reassure them of their safety. We talked to Dr. Ayelet Talmi, associate director of child development and infant health at The Children's Hospital in Denver, about the most common toddler fears and what you can do to help your child through his insecurities. Plus, she has tips on raising a child capable of managing fear.
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Fear: The Dark
What He's Thinking: I can't see what's out there and I feel unprotected in the dark.
How to Help: Most children are afraid of the dark on some level -- it's a very common fear of the unknown. To combat this fear, try teaching your child how to turn on lights around the house, and add a night-light to his bedroom. "Allow your children to control the amount of light they have on when they go to sleep and gradually decrease it over time," Dr. Ayelet Talmi suggests. Help your child understand darkness by going on a night walk together and discussing all the new and interesting things you can see when it's dark.
What He's Thinking: Anything could be lurking under my bed and waiting to hurt me.
How to Help: "Even though we all know there's no such thing as monsters, there's no use telling your toddler that," Dr. Ayelet Talmi says. "Toddlers have vivid imaginations that conjure up monsters in dark corners, shadows, clouds, or just about anywhere." Instead, take his concerns seriously and help your child prevent monster visits. After you've checked under the bed, in the closet, and in all corners for existing monsters, Dr. Talmi suggests filling a spray bottle with water and ensuring your child that new monsters cannot hurt him once he has sprayed his room. Tack a "No Monsters Allowed" sign to his door for good measure.
What She's Thinking: Loud noises and howling wind is scary -- I need Mom and Dad to protect me.
How to Help: Helping your child understand weather and even enjoy it is the best way to combat this fear. "Play outside in various conditions so your child can feel what it's like when it's windy or rainy," Dr. Ayelet Talmi suggests. "Or make a weather chart so your child can be prepared for the weather each day." If you live in a weather zone where tornadoes, hurricanes, or other volatile conditions occur, develop a bad-weather plan as a family so your toddler has some control over the situation.
Fear: Bad Dreams
What She's Thinking: I'm afraid to sleep alone because I sometimes have nightmares.
How to Help: "Bad dreams and nightmares typify toddlers' struggles with the distinction between reality and pretend," Dr. Ayelet Talmi says. "Toddlers might not be able to verbalize that they had a bad dream but will show their distress through behaviors including frequent waking, screaming or crying, telling incoherent stories about things they saw, or saying they are afraid to go to sleep." Comfort your child after a nightmare with a favorite blanket or stuffed animal, and reassure her that she is safe and you're always there to help. If your child has persistent, very intense nightmares, talk to your doctor. She might be experiencing night terrors.
What She's Thinking: I don't know who you are or what you want from me, so I'm sticking close to Mom.
How to Help: "Fear of strangers is a healthy, protective fear -- children should not go to people they don't know," Dr. Ayelet Talmi says. The downside comes when your child fears friends or relatives she doesn't see on a regular basis. "Give your child time to get to know someone before expecting her to interact and be friendly to them," Dr. Talmi says. "Be by your child's side as she interacts with new people, and model friendly behaviors yourself." If you know your child will be shy, warn visiting friends and relatives that it might take some time for her to warm up to them. Try telling them about some of your child's favorite games and activities so they have something to bond over.
What He's Thinking: Why are you leaving me? What if you never come back?
How to Help: It's normal for toddlers to become anxious or afraid when their primary caregivers leave. The key: a healthy good-bye routine. "Always leave your child with a trusted and familiar caregiver, and have the same brief good-bye routine each time you go," Dr. Ayelet Talmi says. Help your child get involved in an activity before you leave, and be sure to tell him good-bye -- don't just sneak away. "The good-bye routine can include reassurance that Mommy always comes back," Dr. Talmi says. "And once you leave, make every effort not to go back as this might disrupt your child's transition."
Fear: Being Alone
What She's Thinking: I feel safe when you're in the room with me, and I don't like you going out of my sight.
How to Help: Make a game of being alone to help your toddler adjust. "Take turns being alone -- Mommy alone, toddler alone," Dr. Ayelet Talmi says. Sit away from your child in a different part of the room, then try being in separate rooms where she can still see and hear you; do this until you can finally be in separate rooms without upsetting her. Try each for short periods of time (about 30 seconds) until she's comfortable. But remember, it's never safe to leave your child completely alone for any length of time.
Fear: Masks, Costumes, & Mascots
What She's Thinking: Big and crazy-looking costumes scare me because I don't understand them and don't know who -- if anyone -- is behind the mask.
How to Help: "Toddlers have vivid imaginations and find it difficult to determine what's real and what's pretend," Dr. Ayelet Talmi says. "While it might be fun to have your child's picture taken with the team mascot, recognize that an oversize dinosaur, tiger, or even rabbit is frightening because of the disproportion and novelty. Separate out when the moment is for you and for your child." Never force your child to interact with someone she are afraid of, and consider having people in costumes remove their masks to reassure her there is a friendly face inside. You can also help your child adjust to the idea of people in costumes by playing dress-up with her.
Fear: Toilets & Bathrooms
What He's Thinking: The toilet is loud and I'm afraid of falling in. I'd rather not go into the bathroom at all.
How to Help: Young children, especially those who are beginning potty-training, are often afraid of numerous things concerning toilets and bathrooms. Loud flushes, water disappearing down the drain, and other mechanical functions can be frightening. "Show your child how things work and allow him to practice," Dr. Ayelet Talmi says. "For example, have your child flush small bits of toilet paper." Also, set up a secure way for your child to use the toilet -- with a child seat or step stool -- so their fear of falling in is lessened.
Fear: Doctors & Dentists
What She's Thinking: I don't like my doctor because she gives me shots and takes my blood and it hurts.
How to Help: A fear of doctors is very common for children of this age. "Your child might freeze when she gets to the waiting room because she associates the location with pain," Dr. Ayelet Talmi says. Prepare your child in advance for the type of procedures she will experience and offer a small reward for her cooperation with medical procedures. "Read or sing together while you wait to minimize anxiety, and stay with your child during procedures," Dr. Talmi says. "Congratulate your child on being brave and strong once the procedure is over."
Teach Him to Manage His Fear
Keep these tips in mind to help your child learn to manage fear on his own:
* Gently expose your child to things that might be scary to him. Coach him and model how to stay calm.
* Explain to your toddler what is real, what is pretend, and how things that might be scary (storms, toilets) actually work.
* Be honest. If you know something scary is going to happen or that something will hurt, tell your toddler the truth. He'll learn to confront fears head-on by following your example and trusting you to tell the truth.
* Manage your own fears, worries, and anxieties without sharing them with your child. In order to develop confidence and sense of safety, toddlers need to know their caregivers are calm.
* Read books and tell stories about other children who were afraid of similar things and overcame their fears. Young children love to hear about other children overcoming adversity and will likely emulate strong characters.
Copyright © 2009 Meredith Corporation.