Helping babies and toddlers with sudden fears

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Baby Fiona is so different now: after months of being passed around among all the aunts and cousins for admiring and cuddling, suddenly she protests loudly and wants only to stay with her mother. And going to the baby sitter’s house is now a big problem, where she was perfectly happy before. In fact, she gets upset whenever her parents leave the room for even a few minutes. What has happened to our good-natured, even-tempered little one?

Two-year-old Ryan never noticed the vacuum cleaner or the garbage truck before, but now he runs and covers his ears at every loud noise. He is afraid he will go down the drain with the bath water and thinks there is a monster under the bed and cannot go calmly to bed anymore. Is he going to be a fearful sissy all his life if we don’t toughen him up right now?

Jack has been running around the house, behaving in hectic, out-of-control ways, having a hard time playing with other children without chasing and scaring them. Could it have anything to do with his demanding to watch the Finding Nemo video over and over? But that can’t be scaring him because he says, “I’m not scared” and keeps asking to watch it.

All these are examples of typical baby and toddler fears that are more or less recognizable to parents and caregivers. It isn’t just the child who cries and looks afraid who is fearful, it’s also children who act silly, who bite their nails or suck their thumbs excessively, who insist “I’m not afraid,” or who show dramatic changes in eating and sleeping behaviors. Adults need to be detectives on the lookout for fears that may underlie disturbing behaviors.

Why Do Children Have These Typical Fears?

Fiona shows us that she now knows the difference between the people around her when she wants only to be with Mom; the more she is aware of the world, the more she needs help — time and growth–to figure things out. Ryan is taking a still further step in figuring out the wider world and the relative sizes of things when he sees that things go down the drain and disappear—“maybe I could, too.” Likewise, his fears of loud noises and a monster under the bed make us wonder if there is some big feeling inside of him which he can’t express, but instead attributes to these outside forces: “anything that loud must be really angry,” he thinks. Stress and tension can also make children fearful; as wonderful as a new house may be, moving may be too much of a loss of the familiar for a preschooler and may provoke fearful behavior. All change is hard for young children and must be carefully managed, and prepared for, to help minimize overwhelming feelings.

What Not To Do

First of all, do not scoff or dismiss your child’s fears, no matter how unreasonable they seem to you—they are VERY real to him. Do not tell him that big boys don’t cry; don’t tell him to buck up and be a man. Comfort him, let him know that you are the parent and that it’s your job to keep him safe. Try to discover exactly what the fear is about and calmly try to deal with it. For goodness sake, don’t say that you will chase the monster under the bed to make it go away—it just reinforces the child’s fear that there really is a monster. Better to look with him to see that there’s nothing there and sit with him to reassure him that you want to help him calm down and feel better.

Never sneak out on a child without saying goodbye; that only reinforces her fear that you might disappear at any moment. Be sure she knows when you are leaving, even if there are tears, and reassure her that you will return. Never say, when someone has died, that they have gone to sleep; imagine how hard it would be for a child to go to bed after hearing that.

Be especially careful about scaring young children, even by joking, to make them behave. Better to remind the child to keep himself safe than to say, “If you go too high on the climber, you’ll fall and crack your head open” or “Don’t run into the street—you could get killed,” which only terrorizes a child with no real improvement in behavior.

What To Do

Continue to protect your child by providing firm limits appropriate to his or her age. It’s up to parents to manage the schedule and surroundings as much as possible so that the child will feel safe and protected. Limit your preschooler to less than 2 hours of TV a day, and avoid programs with violence or those that have nothing worthwhile to teach a child. Even the TV programs and movies that you might think are for the little ones include scary fish or animals with big teeth and threatening behavior—avoid them entirely. Similarly, Halloween and holiday activities must be carefully screened so that very young children are not overwhelmed by scary costumes and situations. Witches, clowns, Santa Claus, anything in costume can be overwhelming and scary to preschoolers.

Understanding Fears

As your child develops, changes, and learns about the world, many experiences will cause her to be confused and anxious. Fears are a normal part of this process of growing up. Even if you don’t fully understand, show that you do realize how big and scary the world must look to him. Give your child respect, support, and comfort and have confidence in her growing abilities. Help her focus on things she can do, like wiping the table or washing the pots while you fix dinner, rather than exposing her to things she can’t do anything about, things which make her feel powerless and helpless like confusing TV shows. Several signs indicate that a child may be having special difficulties with fears. For instance, her sleeping or eating patterns change noticeably. Or he starts to have problems getting along with other children and won’t take part in preschool or play activities. Try wondering, with your child, where the scared feelings come from to help you understand what he’s experiencing. How-ever, if you find that your child is especially stressed, you should seek professional help from a person who specializes in working with young children and their families.

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