It’s healthy for toddlers to be afraid of strangers, dogs, noisy environments, and separation from parents or care providers. Common fears of 3-year-olds also include masks, old people, darkness, parents going out at night, and animals. Every child, beginning in infancy, has fearful responses to some things; that is part of normal development and keeps kids a little wary (a good thing) in threatening situations.
Think about what scared you when you were young (and what still does). Many of your fears started during your early childhood, and you certainly didn’t take them lightly at the time. Lots of today’s scary movies are based on nothing more complex than the fear of strangers or the dark, and look how well they continue to do because we still carry some of those childhood fears.
Imagining the Worst
An older toddler or preschooler is capable of imagining frightening events that might happen, and he can put dark interpretations on things that have happened in the past or are happening now. This means that sometimes an object that is prompting his fear isn’t actually present, though your child’s imagination is allowing him to bring it with him. Here are some common bugaboos:
The Monster Under the Bed
Imaginary fears, particularly at night, can cause all-too-real anxiety in toddlers and preschoolers and should never be taken lightly. While a parent should acknowledge her child’s fearful feelings about an imaginary creature, she shouldn’t appear to buy into the idea that monsters really exist. At the same time, trying to argue your child out of his fears by attempting to convince him that they are imaginary — that the monster under the bed isn’t really there — won’t work either. Imaginary or not, these beliefs cause real fears, which in turn cause anxiety. What your child needs is reassurance, support, and the feeling of safety that you can provide. Snuggle with him, reassure him, tell him it’s a pretend monster. It’s helpful to remember that the other side of fear is fantasy: Both should be respected as an indication of mental growth.
A Shot in the Arm
A child this age also may become anxious about visiting the health care provider because she remembers being surprised and stung by the prick of an inoculation. While acknowledging that a shot may hurt for a few seconds, you can reassure your child that you will be there the whole time. Your steady confidence and presence during all procedures will help her manage her fear. In addition, tell your child that the doctor might also be looking in ears (which may tickle), talking to Mommy, and asking her questions, too. In other words, don’t dwell entirely on the most uncomfortable parts of the visit. Don’t lie, either: Shots do sting, but the sting doesn’t last long. Mistrust of a parent who has fooled him adds to a child’s general level of anxiety and worry. Always be truthful. And remember that children clearly know when their parents are uncomfortable or anxious, even if no one’s talking about it, and it’s natural for them to feel anxious when you do. Try to relax during a health care visit by scheduling routine ones for a time and place where you and your child are comfortable.
Helping a Child Cope With Fears
A parent’s role is essential. Here, a number of ways to help your child:
When to Worry About My Child’s Worries?
These general guidelines will help.
If your child’s worries seem to resemble any of the situations described above, talk to your health care provider to get some assistance.Adapted from Encounters with Children; Pediatric Behavior and Development by Suzanne D. Dixon, M.D., and Martin T. Stein, M.D. (Mosby, 2000), and from Toddlers and Preschoolers by Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D. (Avon, 1994).