Monsters under the bed. The neighbor’s dog. A dark room. What do you do when your formerly fearless and adventurous preschooler is suddenly frightened by imaginary creatures, everyday occurrences and everything in between?
Parents might find it frustrating to understand how something harmless can be quite scary to a child – and can generate such a strong emotional reaction. Their fears may be especially intense this time of year when witches, zombies and other spooky Halloween images seem to be everywhere. However, experts say childhood fears are actually part of a child’s normal growth and development, and are a natural response to a number of different situations.
Fear can warn of potential danger – and may actually teach children to behave in a safe way. Sandra DeJong, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Cambridge Health Alliance, explains that our brains are hardwired to have what’s known as a “fight or flight” response when we perceive a threat or something outside our normal experience. This response physiologically prepares our bodies to either fight or flee the threat.
That’s why most fears, especially for younger children, focus mostly on self-protection. This is something Jennifer Girard of Medway has experienced firsthand. Her son Brady was 5 when he became extremely frightened of thunderstorms and other loud noises. “If there is a rumbling outside or a dark cloud, he runs inside the house and wants us to join him for protection,” she says. “He then will cover his ears and close his eyes …. It’s the same with other loud noises.”
Typical childhood fears – like Girard’s son and thunderstorms – actually change over time as a child grows and develops, says Neha Sharma, a doctor of osteopathic medicine and a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center.
Early Childhood Fears
Infants, who are easily startled, are most commonly afraid of loud noises, falling and, eventually, a fear of strangers, which is actually a sign that a baby is beginning to tell the difference between familiar and unfamiliar faces. Toddlers and preschoolers, who are still trying to understand the expanding world around them, are often afraid of the unknown, like loud noises, the dark and shadows on their walls. And because of their burgeoning imaginations and inability to differentiate between fantasy and reality, they truly believe the “bad guy” on a cartoon show is real or that there really is a monster hiding underneath their beds.
Many toddlers and preschoolers are also anxious about being separated from their parents or caregivers, especially when they are in a new situation or environment, like starting a new school. Shy preschoolers may be afraid of going to birthday parties or other large-group situations. DeJong says some kids may fear that something bad will happen to them when they are separated from their parents, although they usually can’t put that fear into words. “They may go on to fear things like sleepovers and sleepaway camp,” she adds.
Older preschoolers and early grade school students may be fearful of things they actually have had direct – and many times a negative – experience with, such as dogs, bees, shots at the pediatrician’s office or the dentist. “For example, a child who has been in a significant car accident may develop a fear of being in a car or, because fears can generalize, any form of transportation,” says DeJong.
As they’re able to comprehend more, “scary” movies or TV shows can take on a whole new meaning. This happened when Girard’s son, who is now 6, started to understand plot lines. “Before, they were just people, animals or cartoon characters jumping around a screen. Now if he is even slightly nervous he will cover his head with a blanket, his shirt or anything nearby, or he will bury his face into one of us … anything to not see what is going on,” she says.
School-age children, who have more sophisticated thinking skills, often develop “what if” kinds of fears: What if my parents get cancer? What if an asteroid hits the earth? What if I get kidnapped? Many of these fears are often based on things that they learn about either at school or from the media.
Not surprisingly, a common fear for children this age is school itself, including academic performance, teacher rejection, bullying and social competence. DeJong says performance fears often accompany social fears, so these same kids in grade school may feel afraid of speaking up in class or performing in dance recitals. “If they have an upcoming performance, like a test, they may develop ‘anticipatory anxiety’ – fears about all the things that could go wrong,” she adds.
Both DeJong and Sharma agree that as children get older, they may show their fears in different ways. Little kids are likely to cry and misbehave. School-age kids may complain of headaches and stomachaches. Adolescents may develop panic attacks – out-of-the-blue episodes of acute anxiety which last about 10 minutes and involve symptoms like chest pain or shortness of breath. “Like all of us, kids may try to avoid situations that elicit their fears, and may develop little rituals or habits as ways of coping with or displacing those fears,” DeJong explains.
Easing Your Child’s Fears
For Girard, whose son was frightened of thunderstorms and scary movies, acknowledging the fear and offering simple explanations seems to help. “With the scary movies, we either change the channel or talk him through it and explain that it is not real,” she says. “With the thunderstorms, we just try to assure him that they are safe. Sometimes I can get him to look outside at the ‘cool lightning’ streaks.”
Experts say recognizing the child’s fears and encouraging him to talk about them are important first steps regardless of the child’s age. Parents should be supportive, reassuring and exude confidence that the child can overcome the fear. And while it can be frustrating when your child is frightened by something you don’t understand, it’s important not to belittle or be too overprotective, and to always tell the truth.
That’s the strategy Lori Vintilescu of Marlborough tried with her daughter Hannah, now 6, when she went through a recent phase of being afraid of something “bad” happening to her around bedtime, such as her eyeballs falling out. “I held her, asked questions about why she thought that would happen, tried to get to the root of the worry, and then I reassured her that it would not happen and explained why,” says Vintilescu. “She accepted that answer, calmed down and went to bed.”
For younger children struggling with fears at nighttime, sticking to a standard routine – bath, books and snuggles – may be comforting. Parents might also try leaving on a night light, keeping the child’s door open and making sure the child has a special “lovey.” It may also be best to limit or minimize the child’s access to scary movies or TV – including the news.
What About Halloween?
It can be tricky managing a child’s fears during such a spooky time of year. According to Sharma, knowledge and preparation are the two best ways to decrease fears, which is why she suggests parents prepare children for Halloween several weeks ahead. “Children can be included in making the costumes together, so they associate scary images with fun, rather than fear,” she says. Involve the children in carving pumpkins, hanging decorations and picking out the candy.
Some kids will also benefit from getting a heads-up about sights they might see over the next few weeks and explanations about why some people like to wear scary costumes or hang skeletons in their front yards at Halloween time. “Show the child that you, as a parent, are not scared,” Sharma adds. “Children learn to react to situations by observing their parents, making it imperative that parents model appropriately.” Not all children have to go out trick-or-treating. Some kids might prefer helping to pass out the candy and checking out their friends’ costumes from the security of their home.
How Do I Control My Own Fears?
Whether it’s spiders, bridges or heights, many parents struggle trying to manage their own fears while wanting to set a good example for their children. “Kids who are particularly anxious or fearful often have anxious parents,” says DeJong. Because of their own anxiety, parents usually work very hard to avoid their fears. “That avoidance just reinforces our anxiety by ‘teaching’ us that we should be anxious about whatever we fear! It is much better to try to face one’s fears and push through them; the feeling of fear or anxiety will almost always shortly fade,” explains DeJong. “When parents model this kind of coping, kids learn in a powerful way how to manage their own fears.”
When to Seek Help
Eventually, most childhood fears will diminish or disappear with time. But what happens when they don’t? DeJong says experts often use two broad criteria to distinguish between normal and problematic fears: distress and impairment in functioning. “If fears are getting in the child’s way of being able to move along a normal developmental path then the parents should seek help,” says DeJong.
Sometimes, DeJong says, the whole family is not able to do activities that members want to do because of the fears of one child. If children or parents feel distress and believe that their lives have become miserable because of fears, the situation requires professional help.