How can I help my preschooler get past irrational fears?
It’s the age of the monster in the closet—or under the bed. Fears can seem to pop up out of nowhere. And no matter how irrational, they can quickly take over your life!
Common fears among toddlers and preschoolers: loud noises (like thunder, fireworks, and sirens), dogs, bugs, strange things that “might” happen (like tornadoes or zoo animals escaping), and certain scary characters (like an imagined ghoul, a life-size Goofy at Disney World or that fishy-looking dentist who’s only seen twice a year). Worried thoughts by day can also pop up at night, as nightmares.
WHY it happens:
Especially by around 3.5 to 4, preschoolers have learned a lot and feel “big” relative to babies and toddlers. They’re bursting with confidence in all kinds of areas, from running and jumping to self-play, self-feeding, self-dressing, and mental skills like recognizing certain letters or being able to count. They’re also becoming aces at categorizing the world—comparing things, naming them, sorting them—and like to have things figured out.
Then, poof! That swagger can go out the window when something comes along at the wrong moment that somehow seems different, unfamiliar, threatening, or unclear, or that make them feel small or defenseless. Add to this a vivid imagination that can fill in the missing details (fangs!) and possibilities (crash!).
Worries can form in the wake of an upsetting experience or out of the blue when a child is sick, tired, or otherwise feeling a little vulnerable—say during a transition (a move) or other new experience (new sibling).
We can’t really prevent all fears from forming. Even the liveliest, most advanced child is prone to a sudden tender spot. But with a little love and TLC we can make our kids feel better—without turning family life upside-down.
- Acknowledge that the feeling of fear is real. Dismissing or explaining away a fear feels to your kid like you’re belittling it—and her. On the other hand, it’s empowering to know someone else gets your worry and is here to reassure you. Being taken seriously is the first step in being able to move past something.
- Model confidence yourself. Once a child’s fear is validated, they’re more receptive to encouraging comments from you like, “Can you look in my eyes and see that I’m not scared?”
- Help your child snap out of the physical response to fear. Panic can take over and escalate scared feelings. Holding hands, running in place, even cool water on the face are different ways to help thaw someone frozen with fear, at least right in the moment.
- Encourage the buddy-power of blankies and favorite stuffed toys. Ignore spoilsports who might tell you that 3 is “too old” for these emotional crutches; the opposite is true. Attachment to loveys peaks at 3—maybe because that’s when they’re needed most.
- Try “magic” fixes. There’s a reason “monster spray” (water in a cool bottle), dreamcatchers over the bed, Superman posters, and “special protective bracelets” are so popular—they work! Don’t think of it as fakery; think of it as meeting your child where she is psychologically. Preschoolers are super-receptive to the idea of superpowers, magic, and pretend.
- Expose your child to the scary thing in small doses. If sirens are a problem, maybe you play with toy fire trucks, then work up to visiting a fire station. If the fear is dogs, play with toy dogs, and visit a pet shop where the mutts are safely penned.
- Read books and watch movies about fears with upbeat endings. Stories about bravery and overcoming worries are useful even if the plots aren’t about your child’s exact fear.
And for that monster in the closet, we’re big fans of Monsters Inc. All while cuddling together on the sofa, of course.
—Content chief Paula Spencer Scott is a mom of 4 and step-mom of 2—and the author or co-author of more than a dozen books about parenting, health, and eldercare, including Bright From the Start; The Happiest Toddler on the Block; Like Mother, Like Daughter; and Surviving Alzheimer’s.