What Kids Are Scared of -- and Why

An age-by-age guide to what causes childhood fears and worries.

scared child
Photo: TomGowanlock/shutterstock.com

Newborn Baby Fears

Before Elijah Adamic-Sargeant, then 18 months, could enjoy a smoothie, he'd run into his room and cover his ears while his mom fired up the blender. "He was terrified of the vacuum cleaner, blender, and hair dryer," says Susan Adamic-Sargeant, his Wayland, Michigan, mom. Usually a happy little boy, he would scurry in fright when he heard very loud noises.

Fear -- of loud noises, monsters, strangers, or other objects and events -- is a natural part of childhood. But while experiencing fear is stressful to children and parents alike, it should not be minimized. A part of normal development, being afraid is a sign that she's gaining awareness of the world and trying to make sense of it, says Ari Brown, MD, coauthor of Baby 411 (Windsor Peak Press). Fortunately, most fears arrive at predictable stages, and with some insight, you can help your child navigate her fears and walk more confidently through childhood.

Baby's First Fears

Newborns have two fears: loud noises and falling. "Babies' brains and nerves grow rapidly in the first two years of life, but they are born with very immature nervous systems," says Dr. Brown. "This means that they cannot interpret or handle certain sensory input -- like loud noises or the feeling of falling." That's why passing an infant around to loving relatives may not bother your baby, but set him down too fast or make an abrupt, loud noise, and he'll cry in fright.

As her nervous system matures and she focuses on her surroundings, new fears crop up, and by 8 to 10 months, the concept of "object permanence" comes into play. "Prior to this milestone, when things disappear, they no longer exist in the baby's mind," explains Dr. Brown. "But now, they understand that things disappear and they still do exist. So when Mom or Dad leaves the room, the child wonders where they went and when they are coming back."

Separation Anxiety

It's often compounded by another fear at this age -- stranger anxiety, when the child is wary of anyone other than her primary caregivers. "That's a good sign, really," says Mona Delahooke, PhD, a developmental psychologist, in Pasadena, California. "It means the baby is beginning to tell the difference between familiar and unfamiliar faces."

Although it's a healthy part of development, separation and stranger anxiety are especially frustrating for parents -- and it's a tough cycle. Not only is a child afraid of your disappearing, but he's also afraid of the caregiver you leave him with.

When Becky Gjendem and her son, 10-month-old Andy, flew from Florida to Nebraska, Gjendem eagerly anticipated the three-week visit with her mother. Andy had other feelings: He screamed when his grandmother held him and spent the entire visit clinging to his mother.

Easing Separation Anxiety

To help your child handle separation, play games like peekaboo often, so she understands you're still there even if she can't see your face. Then practice leaving the room and wait for a minute before returning. When you're ready to move on to real life, start out by leaving your child with your spouse first, then a close relative or friend, and finally a babysitter. Your baby should begin to see that person as a member of the family, and she'll be happy to stay with her when you need to leave. Start with short separation periods, like a half hour, gradually building up time away from her over several weeks.

Whatever you do, when you're leaving a child with these anxieties, don't just sneak out, warns Dr. Brown. If you leave without saying goodbye, your child will have a shock when he looks for you and you're gone, not only boosting his fears of your disappearing but instilling a lack of trust as well. "Instead, tell him, 'I'm leaving, I love you,' or have some consistent routine," says Dr. Brown.

Fear of Noises, Animals, and the Dark

Along with a child's first steps around age 1 comes the growing need for independence and control over her environment. And that means things beyond her control can frighten her -- like jumping dogs, automatic-flush toilets, or thunder.

Fears of Creatures

Ginny Kress, a Lakeville, Minnesota, mom, recalls that her 18-month-old son was afraid of ants. "He would panic when he was standing on the sidewalk if he saw one ant walking toward him," she says. To help make your child more comfortable with these creepy crawlers, let him explore the world of ants at a museum or in a book. The key is to help kids feel empowered, says Dr. Brown. "The more power you give them to let them feel in control of their world, the better they'll do."

Be sure to respect their feelings, too, even though you as an adult may not see any reason to be afraid. "The best way to get a child to listen to you and learn to overcome any strong feelings is to tell him that it's okay to have such feelings; that you have them, too, sometimes," says Robert Sears, MD, coauthor of The Baby Book (Little, Brown).

Fears of Things That Go Bump in the Night

By the age of 2, a child's imagination kicks into gear as she imagines things she can't see, which opens the door to fear of the dark and monsters. "Parents might find themselves faced with a 2-year-old who used to sleep just fine but now is having a hard time settling down, or is waking up and asking to come into the parents' room in the middle of the night," says Dr. Sears. Try asking your child what she's afraid of and what she thinks will help her overcome those fears. (While Dr. Sears advocates letting your child sleep in bed with you, if you're uncomfortable with co-sleeping, you can stay in your child's room a while to settle her down or let her sleep on your floor.)

Dr. Sears also suggests that parents establish calming night routines and skip bedtime stories with villains or scary pictures. "Help them to not view nighttime as a stressful time," he says. "Make yourself available to them so they know they don't have to endure these times alone."

Recognizing and Acknowledging Fear

Use your child's imagination to his advantage by asking him to consider what would help him work through his fears. Adamic-Sargeant's son, Elijah, became afraid of monsters in his room when he was almost 3. "I asked him what would [help him], and he said that if he had five books in his bed, he would be fine," she says. "Every night we put five books on top of the covers at the foot of his bed, and the monsters have not been back since."

While acknowledging her fears, try to keep things light so you don't build them up either. If your child is worried that monsters may be lurking, make a ritual of checking in each closet together, let a big stuffed animal sit as sentry in the doorway, or grab a can of room deodorizer, label it "Monster Spray," and give it a squirt every night to banish all things scary.

And remember -- these fears won't last forever. Elijah Adamic-Sargeant, now 3, is nonchalant when his mom prepares smoothies in the blender. "I used to be scared of loud noises," he told her. "But now that I am big, it's okay." That's the sign of success, says Dr. Brown. "Your child has to build on these experiences to be able to say, 'I overcame it; it wasn't a big deal.' Every time they have an experience they resolve, it makes them more confident in the future."

Fear or Phobia?

While fears are a natural part of childhood, can they cross the line and become a true phobia? Not likely, say the experts. Genuine phobias in childhood are extremely uncommon, because a phobia is regarded as an irrational fear. And while most children's fears are what we'd consider "irrational" given an adult perspective, from a child's point of view, they're very reasonable. After all, we may logically know we won't go down the bathtub drain, but a child's imagination might say otherwise.

Fears that may be labeled as phobias in adults (like fear of darkness, loud noises, or even bathing) aren't considered true phobias in children. "You could call these child phobias, but they are developmentally normal -- not like adult phobias," explains Dr. Sears.

"For those normal childhood 'phobias,' parents can gradually help their children become used to things by showing them how to interact gently with whatever they fear." Pediatrician Ari Brown agrees. "Some kids have real anxiety about noises, crowds, strangers, and the dark," she says. But it's not a phobia, and you can work together to help eliminate that fear -- thus preventing it from becoming a true phobia in the future. Says Dr. Brown, "Respect the fear, address the fear, and empower the child."

Kathleen M. Reilly has two sons and lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, May 2006.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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