We have a pile of books in our bedroom that my son, Noah,
2 1/2, has asked me to return to the store. It includes all the ones we own that feature a "scary" character, whether it's an animal, a witch, or a monster.
Younger toddlers tend to be frightened by anything that they perceive as a threat to their safety, such as loud noises and dogs. These anxieties often fade when they gain more confidence and independence, but new ones emerge as their imagination blossoms sometime after they turn 2. "To have a fear of monsters, you have to be able to conjure something that's not really there," says Donna B. Pincus, Ph.D., director of the Child and Adolescent Fear and Anxiety Treatment Program at Boston University and author of Growing Up Brave. While it's tempting to shield your child from whatever is spooking him, doing so merely proves to him that these things should be avoided. A better idea: Help him gradually confront fears like these.
A loud and unpredictable cracking sound can be shocking to a toddler. When your child's face crumples, acknowledge why she's afraid ("That was quite a big boom -- it made me jump"), but let her know it's exciting too. Explain that storms are normal ("We have sunny days and cloudy days and sometimes rainy days with thunder. But don't worry -- we're safe and dry inside"). To prepare for the next one, try doing a "thunder dance" to help your toddler associate the sound with playfulness rather than anxiety. You can stomp around the house and hit pots and pans with a spoon, suggests child psychologist Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., author of The Opposite of Worry. When a real storm hits, cradle her in your lap for a while. Then slowly approach the window so that she can watch from the security of your arms.
It's understandable if your toddler cowers when your neighbor's frisky Labrador bounds toward him. Dogs can easily startle him by barking loudly, jumping excitedly, or licking his face. Let your child know that most dogs are merely being friendly. When you see one, ask the owner if it's safe to pet her. Then model the right way to say hello: Let her sniff your hand before you rub behind her ears. Demonstrate how to stroke the soft fur, and then have your child try it. Praise him for taking even small steps, and be patient -- it may take a while until he feels comfortable.
Lots of toddlers become scared of the tub because they're worried about being sucked down the drain as the water empties. To ease this fear, fill the bath with only an inch or two of water and let your child kneel by the edge and play with some water toys for a while. Show her that a rubber dolphin won't fit down the drain, and explain that she won't either. Then gently place her into the tub and add more water. Since your child may be afraid of shampoo stinging her eyes, be sure to cover them with a washcloth when you rinse her hair. Bubbles, bath crayons, and waterproof books can make getting clean more fun for her. "When your toddler is doing something creative, it distracts from the fear," says Dr. Cohen.
While you might expect your toddler to get a kick out of seeing Donald Duck or Chuck E. Cheese in person, he's just as likely to be freaked out by them. Life-size costumes can be intimidating to young children, especially since the proportions of their features and body parts tend to be extreme. "The expressions on a character's face don't change, which can be confusing and distressing to a young child," says Dr. Pincus. To help him understand what costumes are, hold a mask in front of your face and then remove it to show him that you're still Mommy underneath. Let him put it on if he likes, which will give him a sense of control. When you go to an amusement park or an event with a mascot, give the character a high five, and then ask your child if he'd like to say "Hi." If he's not ready, wait till next time.
Don't be surprised if your star sleeper suddenly resists bedtime because she's afraid of being alone in a dark room. "Pretend things, like ghosts and monsters, can seem very real to her," says Dr. Cohen. Using a night-light can make her room seem less scary, and so can a special stuffed animal or blanket. Having a soothing nighttime routine that includes cuddling, reading, and singing will help relax her before you say good night.
However, it's best to work directly on your child's fear of make-believe creatures during the day. You'll need to walk a fine line, letting your toddler know that you understand her fear while gently conveying that the monsters are a product of her imagination. Role-playing can help, as long as you make clear that it's merely a game. Let her be the horrible beast first. Ham it up as you run away and act frightened. When it's your turn, be a bumbling, funny monster who isn't able to catch her. You can also draw a funny picture of the creature together. Make sure you give him a happy face and a big smile so he seems silly, not scary.
Originally published in the April 2015 issue of Parents magazine.