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Children & Fear

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The Fears of Toddlers

13 - 24 Months

Toddlers vary in their vulnerability to fears. Some cope better than others; some are very sensitive to these emotions. It is impossible to predict exactly how your child will handle frightening and confusing events.

Things that your child enjoyed yesterday may terrify her today. Situations that promoted screams in the morning may pass unnoticed by dinner. This is the world of a toddler.

Generally, 3 things spark the fears and the frustrations that accompany the fears of toddlers:

(1) anything that thwarts their drive for independence

(2) anything that thwarts their need for dependence

(3) anything strange or unknown

On the one hand, your toddler seeks autonomy and fights against any effort to restrain or help her.

  • She’ll scream when you try to put her in the high chair at a time she thinks inconvenient.
  • She’ll become infuriated if you try to show her how her new toy works.

This “I-do-it” mentality can be extremely frustrating for her because so often what she wants to do far exceeds her abilities.

On the other hand, she wants your support and protection even more. She’ll shy away from strangers, cling to your leg, and holler when separated from you. This need for your presence and protection feeds her fear of separation, making her anxious and afraid.

The intensity of these feelings are new for your child. She has not developed defenses against anxiety and doesn’t know how to cope with the range of emotions she feels.

Unfortunately, parents’ reactions may make things worse:

When a baby gets clingy, the parent may push her away in an attempt to make her brave.

When the baby throws a tantrum out of frustration, it’s all too easy for the parent to get frustrated, too.

These negative reactions only serve to slow down the growing-up process.

Yet over-reacting with understanding may backfire, too. Too much help and protection will clash with your child’s need for independence. Too little will spark his fear of abandonment.

As his feelings get out of control, he becomes frightened by their intensity and the original frustration transforms into fear.

So what can you do? Most fears and frustrations are best handled with patience, understanding and just a bit of know-how.

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Extreme Anxiety and Fear

Most children have occasional worries or fears as they grow and develop. As a parent, you have most likely calmed a frightened child after a nightmare or had to dispel worries about monsters hiding under the bed. All of these childhood experiences are normal and common.

However, when a child continually shows signs of extreme anxiety or fear, then it is possible that an underlying mental health issue is the cause of the child’s symptoms.

The following is a list of typical signs and symptoms of extreme anxiety and fear. Your child may have extreme fear or anxiety if he or she:

  • Worries about things before they happen

  • Constantly worries about family, school, friends, or activities

  • Feels shaky, restless, or tired

  • Has shortness of breath, a rapid heart rate, or cold, sweaty hands

  • Complains of stomach pain, headache, or dizziness

  • Seems irritable and has difficulty concentrating or falling asleep

  • Feels very nervous

  • Feels as though every situation will end badly

  • Speaks of feeling helpless or powerless

  • Has trouble sleeping alone and has nighttime fears or nightmares

  • Resists going to school

  • Argues with others and often stirs up conflict

  • Has a fear of embarrassment or making a mistake

  • Has low self-esteem and lacks confidence

  • Engages in rituals or habits.

For example:

Washes hands until the skin is chapped

Spends a lot of time putting things in order and feels distressed if the order is disrupted

Checks doors or locks multiple times

Does things a certain number of times and feels distressed if it is not the right number.

  • Starts acting younger than his or her age. Some examples of behaviors include bed-wetting, clingy behavior, thumb-sucking, and sharing a bed with a parent.

Possible mental health diagnoses within this symptom cluster include:

• Anxiety Disorders

• Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD)

• Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

• Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

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Children Living With Fear: Recognizing and Healing the Trauma
by Linda Goldman

Ordinary fears are a normal part of a child’s developmental growth, and children create internal and external mechanisms to cope with these fears. But a child’s ordinary fears” can be transformed into very real “survival fears” in the face of severe trauma.

Today’s kids live in a world of school shootings, extreme bullying, gang violence, natural disasters, threats of biological warfare, and random terrorism. These events can cause panic, stress, and extreme anxiety in kids’ lives, and the feelings are heightened with each new instance reported in the media.

The terror that grips our children in these circumstances emerges from situations that suddenly overwhelm them and leave them feeling helpless, hopeless, and unable to cope.

Trauma is defined by the Encarta World English Dictionary as “an extremely distressing experience that causes severe emotional shock and may have long-lasting psychological effects or a physical injury or wound to the body.”

This unexpected and shocking event destroys a child’s ability to cope and function in a normal way. Children witness untold traumas in their homes, schools, communities, and nations. Many children suffer from a state of trauma that can develop into Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, in which present events trigger memories of trauma resulting in panic, anxiety, disorientation, fear, and all the psycho-physical feelings associated with the traumatic memory.

These symptoms are not easily understood. They often appear out of context with the objective reality of the child’s situation. Both the child and his or her caretakers can be perplexed by these reactions and may easily misinterpret them if the connection to the underlying trauma is not recognized.

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Signs of traumatized children

Caring adults need to recognize the signs of grieving and traumatized children, and they need to be aware of the techniques and resources available to help bring safety and protection back to the child’s inner and outer world.

For example, listening to children’s thoughts and feelings and providing a safe means of expression helps teachers, parents, and educators reinforce their ability to ensure a safe and protected environment.

Traumatized children tend to re-create their trauma, often experiencing bad dreams, waking fears, and reoccurring flashbacks. Young children have a very hard time putting these behaviors into any context of safety.

Many withdraw and isolate themselves, regress and appear anxious, and develop sleeping and eating disorders as a mask for the deep interpretations of their trauma.

Young children engage in post-traumatic play by compulsively repeating some aspect of the trauma. After Tommy witnessed a school shooting, he began wetting the bed and having nightmares and stomachaches. Each time he came to therapy he would repeatedly take a toy gun and pretend to shoot it. It became a regular activity on each visit.

Ten year-old Jane’s mom died in the World Trade Center disaster. Jane repeatedly blamed herself. Her mom had felt sick that morning, and Jane believed, “If only I had made her stay home, she would still be alive.”

The most common identifying factors that children are re- experiencing the event are play reenactment, nightmares, waking memories, and disturbing thoughts and feelings about the event. Sometimes kids avoid reminders of the traumatic event and show little conscious interest.

Many traumatized children exhibit hyper-arousal by increased sleep problems, irritability, inability to concentrate, startle reactions, and regressive behaviors.

When caring adults can identify traumatized kids, they can normalize grief and trauma signs and develop ways kids can express their feelings and emotions. Parents, educators, and other caring professionals can model, present, and support comfortable ways to bring safety and protection back into kids’ lives.


Helping children overcome fears not only eases their anxieties, it also provides an opportunity to build the parent-child relationship. As you and your child work through fears together, he learns to regard you as a valuable source of support.

1. Understand why children are afraid
Children do not think like adults. Most of the world is unknown to the child; and children, like adults, fear the unknown. The preschool child cannot reason through each new experience and decide what's okay and what's threatening.
As if the real world were not scary enough, the ability to form mental images, which develops from two to four years, opens the world of magical thinking with its consequent fearful fantasies .
Two-to-four-year-old children are able to recreate people, animals, and things, which they are exposed to in real life mentally, and these mental images may be scarier than the real thing. The cute daytime dinosaur may reappear in fantasy form as a monster at night, producing the sleep disturbances so common at this age.

The ability to imagine monsters without the ability to reason them away as imaginary creatures results in a developmental stage where little persons are likely to have big fears. Fears vary from child to child. One child's fear is another's fascination. Some children love to play with the vacuum cleaner.

Other kids regard it as a noisy monster that eats things. The school-age child becomes more afraid of changes in relationships, danger, and health issues (e.g., being hit by a car, not being able to breathe, divorce of parents, or death). Children become fearful at different ages, at different intensities, and about different things.

In our family, once we started practicing sleep-sharing sixteen years ago, we didn't have monsters in the bedroom, but Hayden and Erin did go through a stage when they were scared of the dark . When Matthew did not develop this fear, we wondered why. When it finally did show up, he was old enough to understand an explanation - we told him he was scared because his imagination was growing. He liked being able to understand his fear, and it seems to us that he grew out of it quickly.

Fear is one of the earliest emotions, and with a little help from caregivers, the child can turn this unpleasant feeling into an opportunity for emotional growth.

Learning to deal with fears is one of the child's earliest lessons in dealing with emotions and using outside help. Understand and support your child during these times, and the closeness between you will grow.

2. Give a fearless message
First, what not to do. Don't give your child the message that it's wrong to be scared. To a growing child, this translates into "something's wrong with me."
Avoid putdowns like:
  • "Don't be afraid,"
  • "Stop being a baby,"
  • "Big boys (or girls) don't get scared."

These don't put out the fears they only drive them underground.

Now the child is not only afraid of the dark, but he's also afraid to tell anybody about his fear, or seek help with handling it. What began as a normal childhood problem is now chipping away at his ability to trust others.

Without reinforcing your child's fears, empathize with them:

"When I was a child I was afraid of a dark bedroom, too."

Acknowledge your child's fears in order to help her work through them. Strike a balance.

Don't ignore the fears, but don't get over-involved in them either, or your child will play up the fear to get your attention.

When responding to children's fears, give them two messages:

  • It's all right to be afraid.
  • It's good to share your fears and ask for help.

Reassure your child that

"Mom and dad (or trusted adult) will keep you safe."

Remember not to put your child down by saying:

  • "There's nothing to be afraid of." 
  • "That's silly."

Never use or create fears to discipline your child:

  • "The boogie man will get you if you get out of bed." 
  • "God will punish you if you talk back."
3. Model being unfearful
Helping your child handle fears is much easier if you are closely connected with your child. Your child regards you as a test pilot. If something or someone is safe for you, then it is safe for the child.
Stranger anxiety is common between one and two years. Help your child overcome this fear by mirroring to the child that this new person is okay.
Many children become fearful of insects because they see an adult freak out when a June bug buzzes by. Same for lightning and thunder. Try singing "My Favorite Things" during a storm to help you stay calm.
To handle fear of doctors , prior to your visit, let your child explore a toy doctor's kit. Play doctor and go through a pretend examination so your child knows what to expect. Let the child play doctor with his pet, doll, or stuffed animal.
4. Always take your child's fear of caregivers seriously
Normally, familiarity lessens fear. If your child's fear at being left with a particular caregiver, even a relative, is getting more intense, change caregivers. Even if foul play seems unlikely, give your child the benefit of the doubt.
5. Ease bedtime fears
Nighttime is scary time for little people. Fear of the dark and of separation from parents is a double fear that keeps many children awake. Put on a night-light. Parent your child off to sleep with a soothing story, massage, or song. Leave relaxing tapes playing for an hour or so after bedtime.
Young children need these helpers because they cannot use their minds to overcome their fears. The child over four can be helped to work through the fear of darkness. Ask him to tell you what "dark" means to him.
Encourage the child to draw the fear: "Draw what your dark room feels like and looks like." If you get a black sheet of paper with an orange monster under the bed, you've pinpointed the fear.

The principle of gradually increasing exposure helps the child overcome fear of the dark. Play dark tag, beginning with the lights on in a room that preferably has a dimmer switch so that you can gradually dim the lights.

Play hide-and-seek at dusk, and let the game extend into the darkness. Play follow the leader as you weave around the yard at night on an exploring expedition. Initially, hold your child's hand as you explore together.

Give your child his own flashlight to keep next to his bed so that he can turn it on to shed light onto suspicious piles of clothing that turn into "a bear" when there's no light. Sometimes just knowing that he has the power to change the darkness into light is enough to quell the fear.

Or just leave a light on his room; it won't interfere with his ability to sleep. He'll start turning it off himself when he's older.

6. Chase "monsters" out of bedrooms
"Daddy there's a monster in my room." Is this a real fear or another trick for prolonging bedtime? The empathetic parent treats the child's concern as real. Here's how to get the child out of the fearful state and ease him into a sleeping one.
Let the child describe the monster and tell you exactly where it is. Walk around the room together, letting the child share his worries. Realize that fearing monsters is a developmental stage in which the monster stands in for a frightening world.
Childish fears being what they are – illogical – an explanation may not work. A more imaginative response is called for: "I'm the dad in this house and I don't allow monsters in here. He'll have to leave." Then you step into the closet and have a brief talk with the monster.

Do these kinds of responses mean that you have "caved in" to childish behavior? No, they don't. They mean you understand what that dark and shadowy room looks like to your child; your recognizing his reality by playing along shows him a way of mastering his fears. How else can a parent confront a pretend monster, if not by pretending a little?

As your child grows older, the problem with joining in on fictitious fears is that you reinforce the idea that monsters really do exist. We don't believe in "chasing the monster away" games once children can understand the difference between real and pretend.

Tell your child matter-of-factly: "Monsters are only on drawings or TV. They aren't real. And even if they were real, Daddy wouldn't let them get in our house." Draw a monster picture and show your three-year-old the difference between real and imaginary. ("Monsters are pretend. Lions are real and Daddy won't let any lions in here either.")

Since we share sleep with our children, we haven't had this monster-in-the-bedroom problem ourselves. Once our kids are secure enough at night to graduate from our bedroom, they are past the age of being tricked by their imagination. Even if your child sleeps in his own room, a lovely part of his bedtime ritual could be Mom or Dad lying down with him as he falls off to sleep, until he is old enough to enjoy going to sleep on his own.

Try helping your child imagine a substitute scene: "When you dream about anything scary, imagine a train at the end of your bed. Whenever you're afraid you can hop on the train, and mommy and daddy will be right there in the train with you. You ride around in the train for a little while with mommy and daddy, and then the train comes back and stops at the end of your bed. You get off, and you crawl back into bed, and by that time you'll forget the scare."

Offering substitute make-believe works for the sensitive child who feels threatened at any suggestion that the monsters aren't real and that therefore you think he's dumb for even thinking about monsters. The best way to get rid of nighttime fears is to prevent them by practicing a style of nighttime parenting that helps the child feel that sleep is a pleasant state to enter and a fearless state to remain in.

7. Get rid of fearful characters
Fear of fantasy characters is one of the most common fears in the preschool child. If your child's favorite imaginary characters are not keeping him awake at night, bothering him at school, or making him a generally fearful person, join in the fun, and let your child enjoy the fantasies while they last. If they are interfering with your child's emotional development, help your child work through what is imaginary and what is real. The child under six has difficulty separating make-believe from reality.

Banish scary characters from your child's environment. Turn off scary TV shows and videos. Even better, limit TV and videos for preschoolers to very selective viewing. Beware of films and cartoons that were created for older children and adults. Help your child discern the difference between real and imaginary characters. Talk about how cartoons and movies are made. Use puppets to put on an act. ("See, these aren't real; they only talk with your voice or move if you pull the string.")

Be careful not to transfer your own fears to your child. For example, your toddler is climbing up on the counter. If you immediately give him the fear message, "You might fall!" or "That's dangerous!" he probably will fall. Fear can actually make risk situations more dangerous. It's best to calmly walk over to the child and assist him.

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