Being afraid is something that simply goes along with being a kid. If you think back to your own childhood, you probably remember the monster that lived under your bed, or the fear of being left alone in the dark.
As a parent or caregiver, you may begin to notice your toddler expressing anxiety or fear about thunderstorms, dogs, preschool, bath time, bedtime, going to the doctor, or a dozen other things. While it’s impossible to completely shield your child from experiencing fear, you can help him cope with it. It may seem silly that he’s afraid to get into the tub because he thinks a shark lives in there, but that fear is very real to him. That’s why it’s important to learn different ways to help him work through it.
Here are some expert tips for helping your child manage fears:
Acknowledge and Validate Feelings
All too often it’s easy to say things like “there’s nothing to be afraid of,” “don’t be scared,” or even “that’s silly, don’t worry so much.” But when we ignore, minimize, or brush off little ones’ fears, we essentially leave them to deal with something distressing on their own. It’s important to acknowledge and validate your toddler’s fears (whether they’re rational or not). “Wow! Sharks are scary! No wonder you don’t want to get in the tub! But remember, sharks live in the ocean and you’ll never, ever find one in our tub.” This can provide a small but significant sense of comfort, simply because you recognized and empathized with his fear.
Talk About Fears
Most fears, even for adults, stem from the unknown. Being in the dark, going to the doctor, or attending preschool for the first time can be incredibly scary, mainly because your child doesn’t know what’s going to happen. Remember, toddlers have incredible imaginations. If they don’t understand something, or don’t know what to expect, it’s easy to feel truly frightened. Explore your child’s fear with him. What is he thinking about? What does he think might happen? Asking questions helps you provide answers, and those answers help him feel more secure about what to expect. You can even role-play situations he feels afraid of ahead of time, or make a fun game around shadows in a dark room (our BabySparks program offers fun ways to do this).
Be Calm and Confident for Your Child
You’ve probably noticed your toddler looking to you for a cue in certain situations. For instance, when you meet a new person, he might check your reaction before he reacts. Also known as social referencing, this your child’s way of taking comfort in knowing that someone he trusts is behaving in a calm and confident way, even if he’s unsure of the circumstances. So, if you’re acting brave, it will be easier for him to feel brave himself. This is, without a doubt, easier said than done! When you see that your child is afraid, your natural instinct is to protect him or get him away from the source of the fear. But remember, the idea is to help him learn how to deal with fear. Remind him that it’s okay to feel afraid, and encourage him to be brave. Most importantly, be calm, encouraging, and positive.
Unfortunately, there are no magic words, phrases, or actions that will completely wipe your child’s fears from his mind. Helping a toddler overcome fear takes time and a lot of patience. Also, remember to take small steps towards overcoming fears. Just acknowledging the fear, talking about it, and allowing him to feel your bravery are small but significant steps in the right direction.
When Fear Goes Too Far
It’s always important to remember that fear is a natural part of growing up. However, if you feel your toddler’s fear (or fears) are too big, there are two main red flags to keep an eye out for:
(1) He obsesses over it. He mentions the source of his fear multiple times a day and has been fixated on it for an extended period of time.
(2) It’s standing in the way of his development or enjoyment in life. For instance, he won’t play outside or attend a birthday party because he’s afraid of dogs. You know it’s gone too far if the fear is stopping him from doing things he loves or participating in important events.
If you feel that fear is stopping him from doing things he loves or participating in important events, your pediatrician or a pediatric mental health professional can help him work through it.
Is your toddler afraid of the dark? For advice specific to this fear, head over to our article about toddler nighttime fears.