Fear and anxiety are usually a normal, healthy response to a new or threatening environment. Children especially express fear and anxiety as they grow and become more aware of explicit and implicit dangers in their everyday lives.
Sometimes, however, fears and anxieties can become phobias or evolve into generalized anxiety disorder. Knowing what fears are common triggers for children can help you address them as they arise and understand why your baby is suddenly afraid of the dark or waking up from nightmares screaming about fire. Most fears and phobias are very treatable, but if the fear begins to interfere with your child’s day-to-day life, you may want to seek professional help.
Common Childhood Fears
1. The dark and monsters under the bed
Why we come to fear the dark probably has its roots in days when predators lurked, waiting to pounce, just outside the safety of the fire pit’s glow. Though we are far removed from the time when the instinct for fight-or-flight ensured continued survival, the hormones that cause that feeling are still easily triggered. As children grow, their senses become more finely tuned and they begin to process and puzzle out their surroundings with increasing awareness. One day the dark may no longer be a safe time for sleep but a scary time when the house settling is a monster under the bed or a thief coming to steal something.
Some kids love water and some kids hate it. Why your child reacts one way or the other can be the result of many contributing factors. Talk with your child – away from the water – to find out why they are afraid. Did they used to enjoy swimming but get playfully dunked by an older cousin and get scared?
3. Animals and insects
Spiders, bees, and even dogs – children are often afraid of animals, and probably for good reason! It is healthy to respect that most animals can cause you harm, especially if you’re a tiny tot and you’re meeting a dog twice your size. Children who have been stung or bitten are especially prone to fears about animals and insects. Sometimes, however, children develop a fear despite not having any direct experience. For example, learning about sharks, jellyfish, and stingrays in school may make your child reluctant to swim in the ocean because they fear harm.
We talk to kids a lot about fire safety, especially in school. Fire prevention and fire safety are necessary, but because fire threatens your child’s life, your life, and the lives of other people your child loves, it is important to recognize that fire is inherently scary to them on many levels. Adults deal with fear and anxiety by being prepared, which is why we stress fire safety with our kids.
Thunder is loud and lightning, while beautiful, is potentially deadly. Many children develop a fear of thunderstorms when they are young. There is a lot on TV and radio about storms that can also contribute to this fear.
What can you do?
Talking to your child is the number one way to address fears. Listen without judgment and talk through the issue in order to find a way to make your child feel safe again. Present the evidence and facts in a child friendly way and that information may help a child develop a realistic perspective on their concern.
Listen to your child to discover how he or she deals best with fear and anxiety. Help him or her come up with a plan if the situation occurs. For example, to deal with fears regarding fire one possible solution is to involve your child in developing a family specific plan and have him or her lead family practice drills.
Help ease common childhood anxiety by establishing a routine way to calm your child, such as cuddling or taking deep breaths. You can teach your child how to relax and breathe in a calming way. Once your child is calm, find a fun activity to take their thoughts off their fear.
Keep in mind the “degree” of the fear your child is feeling is inaccurate relative to the problem. Your goal is to help your child realize that their fear is not as dangerous as he or she thinks. You will best help them by NOT allowing them to avoid things, rather to help your child get the right information and corrective experiences so they are confident knowing it isn’t actually as scary as it seems.