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.
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.
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.
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.
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