Oct 2, 2019, 10:55:40 AM CDT Oct 9, 2019, 9:52:02 AM CDT

Childhood fears: What’s common and how can you help?

Whether your child is afraid of the dark, monsters or loud noises, many childhood fears are a normal part of development. Learn why.

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Mother and daughter checking under bed for monsters Mother and daughter checking under bed for monsters

Kids can experience fear at any age, and often, those fears are a normal part of their development. Some fears can be mild or short-lived, while others may interfere with your child's daily activities.

"There are many typical childhood fears that can make kids feel anxious," says Jasmine Ghannadpour, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Children's Health℠ and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern. "Some fear is natural and predictable, but sometimes fear can become more profound and problematic."

As a parent, it's natural to want to comfort your child and protect them when they are afraid. But understanding how and when to intervene will help you balance your nurturing instincts against reinforcing your child's anxiety. Dr. Ghannadpour shares common worries by different stages of development and how parents can help their children overcome those fears.

Fears are different depending on the age of your child

Fear can make kids cautious. It can also guide them to ask for help when they are uncertain or fearful of a situation. "Fear is normal and adaptative. Some fears can help motivate kids to do better, but irrational fears may be concerning," says Dr. Ghannadpour.

As kids grow, their fears change. Understand what's common at each stage of development.

Common fears for infants

At the earliest of ages, infants recognize the sounds and faces of their parents and siblings. The bond becomes strong, and by about 6 to 8 months of age, infants can start to show signs of separation anxiety. But parents can ease their child into a new environment, such as daycare, by gradual exposure.

"It's normal for a baby to cry or be upset when initially separated from parents for childcare, especially for the first week or two. You can help by gradually acclimating your baby to the environment," says Dr. Ghannadpour. "For a couple of days, visit the daycare with your infant but don't leave them. Then, on another day, spend a little more time (exposure) at the daycare. You'll want to keep working up to the day your infant feels confident and safe to stay at the daycare alone."

Other common fears for infants include:

  • Loud noises
  • Strangers

Common fears for toddlers and primary school-age kids

If your toddler or younger school-aged kid is afraid of the dark, going potty or of monsters under the bed, that's common. "Toddlers are starting to understand that bad things can happen, but they have not developed the ability to challenge their fears with more rational thoughts," explains Dr. Ghannadpour. "As they get older, they develop the ability to manage these worries with more rational thoughts, for example, ‘I've used the toilet many times, and so have other people, and I don't know anyone who has ever gotten hurt.'"

As kids continue to grow, their fears change, and it's more common for them to become afraid of real-world concerns. The fear of being bit by a dog is real, and a fear of snakes can keep even the outdoor enthusiast indoors. Most of the fears kids in this age group face are fears related to themselves or a family member.

Other common fears for primary school-age kids include:

  • Bad weather, such as tornadoes and loud noises from thunderstorms
  • Being home alone
  • Being kidnapped
  • Medical providers and going to the doctor or the dentist
  • The dark and noises at night

Common fears for teens

At this age, a teenager likely isn't afraid of the dark. Their fears will seem more real-world. This is because teens are aware of their surroundings and the world around them. If there's a storm coming, they understand the realities that can come with a hurricane, tornado or lightning. Your teen may question and fear death if they've had a pet die or have an ill relative.

Other common fears for teenagers include:

  • Being in a driving accident
  • Failure in school or work
  • Getting hurt or dying
  • Medical providers and going to the doctor or the dentist
  • Social fears such as embarrassment at school, public speaking and performance

Understanding the difference between a fearful temperament and an anxiety disorder

Many fears are normal, and the "fight or flight" response helps protect us against dangers. But these feelings are different than those associated with a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). GAD is the most common anxiety disorder, and a child with generalized anxiety may show the following signs:

  • Fears that interfere with the child or parent's life
  • Excessive worry that interferes with concentration, social activities and the ability to relax
  • Worry about adult issues like finances or marriage
  • Fear of leaving someone they feel close to
  • Fear of going outside because of spiders and snakes or fear of bad weather
  • Excessively seeking affirmations

In extreme cases, the anxiety can be so overwhelming a child could feel passive suicidality – they don't have an active suicidal plan, but they believe ‘it would be easier if they weren't around.'

5 tips to help your child overcome their fears

You can help your child overcome their fears by providing reassurance, modeling healthy coping behaviors and taking small steps to increase exposure. Dr. Ghannadpour recommends the following five tips to help lessen fears:

  1. Normalize and validate – Everyone experiences fears, and we don't want to get rid of fear completely – it serves a purpose. It's important to validate and provide reassurance and then suggest a solution. Don't shame a child for their fears.
  2. Model coping skills – You can't fight through your child's fears for them, but you can model behavior. Take a deep breath and give your child a temporary distraction to get through that moment.
  3. Understand your own personal fears – Parents should notice and address their own anxiety since kids notice a parent's stresses and anxiety. Respond with calmness.
  4. Be mindful of outside influences – Kids who tend to worry may watch the news. Be mindful of turning off and tuning out intense news stories. When there are especially distressing news stories, take a break from those.
  5. Increase exposure – One of the most effective treatments for anxiety is exposure to fear. Fear makes us want to avoid those situations; avoidance makes us feel better. If your child is fearful of going to a birthday party because he doesn't know anyone, then start small by inviting a few friends over to the house leading up to the party.

Learn more

Psychologists and psychiatrists at Children's Health can help children and teens manage feelings of anxiety. Learn more about programs we offer to support mental, emotional and behavioral health.

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anxiety, behavior, emotion, toddler, psychology

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