The answer? It depends. It depends on their age. Common fears include strangers, heights, darkness, animals, blood, insects, death, and being left alone.
Kids learn to fear a specific thing or situation after having a scary experience...I'm thinking dog bites.
Fear is important. It keeps us safe. Of course, there are those for whom fear and the resulting adrenaline rush is, well, a rush. These folks have "sensation seeking" nervous systems and the scarier it is, the better they like it. This means that it's rewarding to them. I liken them to people who enjoy really spicy food. They can taste the heat, for me, it only hurts. No reward whatsoever...
You can't help it. You gasp when your toddler falls. As soon as they fall, they'll either start crying because they really have hurt themselves or they'll look at you for your reaction. If they're not hurt and you gasp in response to their tumble, start clapping your hands, smile and say, "Good falling!" They learn how to handle their tumbles with confidence after a while. They'll learn to be brave when they fall.
When parents in my office would say, "Well, that shouldn't be scary for her", I would get out of my chair, walk very close to them, tell them that if I poked them hard in the eye and they cried, how would they feel if I told them that it shouldn't hurt? Let me just say that they "got it" right away.
Minimizing, marginalizing and denying someone their feelings can often be the basis for mistrust and can be a deal-breaker in relationships. Don't go there.
Don't taunt them with loud, sudden noises or pretending to drop them until they're old enough to think it's fun when daddy throws them around. Don't train your "teeny-weeny-jelly-beanies" to scream when they see you.
Of course, they don't like it when they can't see you until they develop "object permanence" which happens between 4 and 7 months. They begin to understand that when something disappears that it's not gone forever. Playing "peekie boo" will help this very important cognitive milestone to emerge. It's that whole "cause and effect" thing.
Hap Palmer has a great song called, "My Mommy Comes Back". Click the blue print and the You Tube video will play. Learn the words and help baby to understand that you always come back!
This is why I tell parents DO NOT DO NOT DO NOT take your "less than 5 year-old" to Disneyland/Disney World. Those huge cartoon characters in costumes make no sense to the "under 5" crowd. Avoid Santa, the Easter Bunny and anyone else dressed in a big ol' costume because it will be "freak out" time.
Their imaginations are becoming vivid (and so are their dreams), and because they don't always separate fantasy from reality, be careful what you read to them and what they see on television or at the movies. You may think it is a "sweet" book, but they're likely to make a monster out of the main character.
And, of course, they don't like it when you leave. Singing the "My Mommy Comes Back" when taking them to preschool might be comforting to them.
They're still afraid of unexpected things and now, imaginative things like monsters and witches...and the dark. They're also afraid of being sick, getting lost and being alone at night. They're afraid of natural events and anything unexpected.
Throughout this period, they're developing a sense of the "pecking order" and how they compare to others in terms of physical skills, social skills and academics. It's a really big deal.
They start to appreciate that everyone's vulnerable to illness and injury or other trauma. They worry.
Their peers are a source of fear and anxiety. So are natural events and bad people doing bad things. They're starting to worry about "life after high school".
- Start early. Play peek-a-boo, leave your child in the room alone for increasing periods of time to help them learn that "My Mommy Comes Back".
- Understand their neurology. Is your child easily startled? Have a fearful personality? Cry easily? They may one of those "sensitive souls" and life will be more challenging for them because the world is not kind or easy or safe...
- Don't diminish their fears. Teach coping skills. Give them information about how lightning and thunder works. Teach them that they're too big to be sucked down the drain or the toilet. Let them pop balloons (under carefully controlled situations so as not to suck the flying latex pieces into their mouths). If they're afraid of ghosts, then, introduce them to Casper or other friendly witches and monsters who are "misunderstood". Teach them the "connection" between the loud noise and what happens when they bang the lids of pots and pans together.
- Since play is the rehearsal for real life, let them play with the things that scare them like the mixer or the vacuum cleaner...unplugged or under your supervision. "Demystify" the world for them.
- Remember not to overreact such as when they fall. Don't run to them and pick them up. They won't learn to cope. Tell them "what's going on" and the "why" behind it. "I accidentally dropped the dish and the noise scared you."
- Let them talk about their fears.
- Handle your own fears in a healthy way. They watch you and model you.
- When you excessively reassure them, it sends a signal that there might be something to be worried about or fearful of.
- Start out low and go slow. Had a nasty encounter with a dog? Arrange for a visit with a puppy. Puppies are always chewing and their little teeth are sharp, so be mindful. Systematically desensitizing kids to the things they fear can help them build their confidence.
- Give them a timeline. "When you're ten, you won't be afraid of the dark".
- Let the "herd" handle it. When they go to Six Flags with their pals at age 14, their friends will force them to go on roller coasters. They may shake and puke, but they'll prove to themselves that it "maybe wasn't so bad".
- Whatever you do, don't use the "F" word. No, not that one. "Fine". "You'll be fine". Encouragement such as, "I have confidence you'll get the job done..do your best", etc. is judgment-free. If you tell them they'll be fine, they'll do what they need to do, but they might have a headache, shaky hands and feel afraid, but they sure won't feel fine.
Overall, knowledge, confidence, reassurance, maturation and experience make up the algorithm for facing life's fears. There is so much in life that is uncontrollable. The only thing they can control is how they handle it. Reinforce their brave reactions. Help them to see their progress. "Last year, you were afraid of dogs, now you like them!"
Fifty years ago, we thought that kids who were fearful or anxious (having 7 or more fears) were experiencing "normal" childhood development. We finally started studying kids because, well, golly gee, they grow up to be a similar version! Now, we know better.
There is reason to be concerned about anxious kids because the young ones with anxiety, depression or behavioral problems are likely to develop a wide range of difficulties by the time they reach young adulthood. A long-term study revealed that even if these kids do not develop diagnosable psychiatric disorders, the anxiety, mood and behavioral symptoms create problems for them in daily life.
If your child is not adjusting to the world through the development of coping skills and continues to be sad or anxious or has behavioral problems, it's time for professional support.
And, if your child has special needs and lags behind their peers in terms of social and emotional development, they'll need longer to overcome their fears.
I'm so glad that they have no idea just how terrifying it is to be a parent...THAT'S real fear...
Just do the best you can,
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