"The preschool years are years of intense feelings, but most children aren't yet able to use words well enough to express those feelings. Many things can be scary to them -- things that are real and imaginary – and, like all of us, they carry their own "inner dramas" which color everything they see and do. So it’s natural that not all children develop the same fears, and that some children are more fearful than others."

Fears

Children are most often afraid of things that actually do what they themselves are trying not to do. For instance, when children are trying to master the urge to bite, they can become very frightened of things that represent biting, like barking dogs, alligator puppets with big teeth, even pliers, nutcrackers, or still pictures of wild animals in a book.

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Where Children’s Fears Might Come From

Such fears might also grow out of children's struggles with their own angry feelings at their parents for making rules and setting limits, paying more attention to a new baby than to them, or for not giving them something they really want. Children can be afraid of getting too angry at their parents because they wonder if maybe their anger could result in losing their parent's love, and that would be devastating. They sometimes project those angry feelings onto some outside thing -- a dog, a tiger, a vacuum cleaner or a toilet drain -- and then they fear that the very angry thing may just destroy them. Most fears like that tend to calm over time, especially as children realize that a parent can be both loving and angry…and that they themselves can have both loving and angry feelings toward their parents.

The Magic Years

Preschool years are also "magic" years, when children think that things happen by magic…or wishing…or pretending. Children don't yet know the difference between what's real and what's pretend. Monsters, ghosts, and nightmares can seem very real, so can scary-looking cartoon or puppet characters in movies or on computers or television.

Because children don't understand how machines work compared to how bodies work, they might think, for example that vacuum sweepers, lawn mowers, heavy construction equipment, have lives of their own and could uncontrollably gobble up things -- even children! They might also worry, "If a doll's arm breaks off, that might happen to my arm!" Even when a mother looks different because of a new hairstyle or different glasses, a child could be scared that that she might have changed into an entirely different person. In fact, sometimes children wonder if just putting on a mask or costume might change them into someone different.

One of the most important ways to work on fears is through their play. When children play about something that's scary for them, they are in charge. They don't have to feel so small, helpless, and scared. Each time children play about something, they understand it a little bit better, and they’re able to grow a little bit stronger and less afraid.

Parents Can Help Children Feel Safe

Parents want their children to be afraid of some things, because fears can keep children from doing dangerous things. But we don't want our children to develop irrational fears that hold them back from doing healthy things, sleeping well, and making friends.

Part of our "job" as parents is to help our children feel safe and secure. Sometimes it can be very frustrating to try to explain to a frightened child that a monster or witch or some other imaginary thing isn't real. We adults have already learned that, but our children are just beginning.

If you can remember some things you were afraid of when you were a child, you know what it feels like to be scared. Thinking about your own childhood fears helps you be more in touch with your fearful child and also assures you that, at some point, children can outgrow those fears.

There are many times in life when we can't solve our children's problems or get rid of their fears. Perhaps all we can do is to provide a safe, loving home and a willingness to listen while our children work through whatever is bothering them. "Being there" is often the most active and helpful kind of support parents can give.

  • It can help children to know they're not alone in being afraid. Let your child know that many children (and even adults) are afraid of things, even if they don't show it.
  • Listen with care when your child tells you what he or she is afraid of. It doesn't help to tease or to say "There's nothing to be scared of." Fears are real to children. It’s important not to discount their feelings.
  • You might want to say something like, "There really aren't any tigers out there, but I understand that you're scared and I'll be here to keep you safe." With reassurance like that, your child may feel strong enough to deal with the fearsome "tiger" and, eventually "tame" it.
  • It's wise to stay away from things that scare your child. You could put away a toy or book that your child finds frightening, and keep the television off if you know there's something scary in the news or other programs.
  • Try not to force your child to do something that is scary. Forcing can make children even more afraid. Children need adult’s patient help until they can get over their fear.
  • Give your child something to do, like yelling "Boom!" when the thunder sounds, or turning on a nightlight or flashlight when the bedroom feels too dark. Even pressing the button to turn off a television show when it gets too scary can give your child a sense of power over the fear.
  • It often helps for children to draw a picture or make up a story about a particular "monster" or scary dream. When children can get the scary thing outside of themselves – whether in spoken words or drawn on paper, they're often better able manage their fears. Getting some distance from the fear makes it easier for children to have some control over it, so that it doesn’t control them. Of course, even playing or drawing about something can be too scary for some children.
  • Ask a librarian for books that can help children deal with fears. Your child may be able to hear about something scary if it's in a book - and if you are nearby.
  • Some families give their children a spray bottles with water as “monster spray,” or put a sign on the door "No monsters allowed." That may seem to work in the short term because children are so trusting of us adults and so willing to believe the fantasy -- but what it could say to them is that their parents, too, think that monsters are real, and that the monsters might actually be there. In the long term, we want them to know that monsters aren't real and they really are not there.
  • If you’re concerned that you’ll “transfer” your own fears to your child, you could ask someone else to help in certain situations. For example, if a mother has a great fear of the dentist, the father, an aunt, or a close cousin could be the one to take a child to the dentist.

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