Tips for dealing with children’s fears effectively and healthily
Remember when your biggest problem in life was being afraid of a monster in the closet? As an adult, you might look back on those times with nostalgia and chuckle to yourself about how silly you were for being afraid of those things.
But as a parent, it’s important to realize that these fears are very real for children. They start developing early in life (earlier than you probably think), and they manifest in different ways over time. Luckily, these fears are temporary, and they will fade as your child gets older.
Knowing how to react to and deal with your child’s fears will help them work through things in a healthy way. It will also position you as a source of comfort and protection. Here is a helpful list of tips to aid you and your child in addressing and processing these fears together.
Note that these tips are for mild fears of things such as monsters under the bed, loud noises, or animals. If the fear persists for a long period of time or if your child seems irrationally upset about a certain thing after trying these suggestions, please consult your pediatrician.
Believe it or not, children start to experience fear in infancy. As their brains and bodies develop, their understanding of the world changes and so do their anxieties.
At this age, babies are developing at a rapid pace. Their bodies are still getting accustomed to the world and to their specific environment. Shocking sensations caused by loud noises, bright lights, and even the feeling of falling can spark fear.
Children at this age are beginning to understand object permanence: the idea that just because they can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there. Parents may see this manifest as separation anxiety in their children, especially at child daycare drop-off or bedtime. This phase will pass as children learn that parents will return after time away and that nothing bad has happened in the meantime.
It’s helpful to start slow and build up to leaving for longer periods of time. Begin at home by leaving your child alone for a few seconds and then a few minutes. Move on to leaving the house for longer periods of time while your child stays with a spouse or partner. Graduate to leaving your child with a babysitter or family member while you go out for the day or night. This way you can work up to leaving for a full workday, a long weekend, and even a full vacation.
Toddlers are exploring their environments and their sense of independence. When they encounter something they can’t control or understand, they may become fearful. Things such as barking dogs, vacuum cleaners, and lightning fall into this category.
This is the age where it becomes very important for parents to stay patient and be as understanding as possible. Children’s imaginations are on full power, so they may conjure up some fears that seem pretty silly to adults such as monsters in the closet, spaghetti really being made of worms or the idea that they’ll be sucked into the filter on the side of the pool if they swim too close.
How to deal with fears as a parent
Although every child is different and they may react more strongly to a certain solution than another, there are some general dos and don’ts to keep in mind as you work through this process.
Be open and honest about the fear
Talk to your child about their fear, and bring it to the surface. Acknowledging that it exists and putting it into words can often make it less scary and easier to manage.
It also gives you, as the parent, an insight into your child’s mind. Ask them questions about fear and how they feel in certain situations. You may find some helpful information. Maybe they’re only afraid of the neighbors’ dog up close, but it’s OK if the dog is on a leash or behind a fence. Maybe they’re not afraid of all loud noises, just the vacuum cleaner.
Offer protection and security
When your child comes to you with a fear, acknowledge it and help them work through it. Your child sees you as a source of protection and comfort, so it’s important that you provide those things in these moments. It sets the standard for future difficult situations. If you laugh off their anxieties and say it’s no big deal, your child may never learn how to process them.
Keep it brief
There is a difference between acknowledging a fear and dwelling on it. Dwelling on it will only give the fear more power and prove to the child that it is something to worry about. It’s best to talk it through with your child and then take actionable steps to fight the fear.
Constantly bringing the fear up or catering to their every request will only make it worse. For example, bringing your child into sleep with you every night because they’re afraid of the dark only shows your child that they are correct to think their room is unsafe. Otherwise, why would you be taking them somewhere else?
It helps children tremendously to know that there is a solution to their fear, no matter how small or imagined it may be. As an adult, doesn’t it feel better when you are actively working to solve a problem instead of doing nothing and letting it consume you?
Giving children something to do to fight off the fear can help soothe their worries. Put a night light in their room to help them see better when they become afraid of the dark. Check their room before bed every night, and give everything a once-over with monster spray to keep all the bad guys away. Give them a lollipop or a cool Band-Aid after they get a shot from the doctor.
Be patient and consistent
After a busy day working, running errands, and taking care of the family, it can be hard to deal with monsters in the closet. Remember that these fears are temporary but very real for your child.
By offering comfort and protection, your child will understand that it’s OK to be afraid sometimes because there are ways to deal with it properly. Being strong and consistent will give your child the best chance of moving past the fear quickly and continuing to learn their way in the world.
The Virginia Infant & Toddler Specialist Network helps improve the quality of care for infants and toddlers through extensive resources, services, and education for caregivers. Learn more about how we can help you improve the standard of care.