Preschoolers and fear
It’s normal for a preschooler to be fearful. After all, anxiety is a natural condition that helps us cope with new experiences and protects us from danger. Some 3- and 4-year-olds are frightened of very specific things: bugs, dogs,the dark, or clowns. Other kids are afraid of new situations or meeting new people. Certain fears are particularly prevalent during the preschool years because a child’s highly active imagination may make him worry about make-believe creatures, his (and your) health, death, disaster, and pain. Being hurt is another common fear (that’s why your preschooler wants to cover up even the most minor scratch or cut). Most of your preschooler’s fears will fade as he becomes more secure in himself and his environment.
What you can do to ease your preschooler’s fear
Acknowledge his fears. They may seem silly and irrational, but they’re very real and serious to him. Try not to smile when he tells you he’s scared of, say, the neighbor’s poodle or monsters under the bed. Let him know you understand how it feels to be afraid of something. If you’re reassuring and comforting, he’ll learn that it’s okay to have fears and that it’s best to deal with them. “Try to depersonalize the fear by getting your child to talk about it or label what’s making him scared,” says William Coleman, a behavioral pediatrician at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. “Fears won’t go away if you ignore them.”
Trying to convince your preschooler that there isn’t any reason to be afraid will only backfire. You’ll probably just make him more upset if you say, “It’s okay, the dog won’t hurt you. There’s nothing to be afraid of.” Instead, try, “I understand that the dog frightens you. Let’s walk past him together. If you don’t want to do that, I’ll hold you while he walks past us.”
If you think your preschooler’s fear stems from angry feelings or anxiety over a new situation — such as the arrival of a new sibling or starting preschool — give your child ways to express his feelings, through pretend play, for instance. Or guess at the feeling in a nonjudgmental way, says pediatrician Barbara Howard, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ committee on psychosocial child and family health. Say, “I know you sometimes wish this baby would go away, but it won’t be long before he’s really fun to play with.”
Use love objects. Some preschoolers still get a great deal of comfort out of dragging around a raggedy baby blanket or clutching a well-worn teddy bear. These objects can offer an anxious child lasting reassurance, especially at transition times, such as when you drop him off at preschool or tuck him in for the night.
“Lovies” can also make it easier for some preschoolers to do potentially scary things like meet new people, attend a playgroup, or visit the doctor. So allow your child to hold on to that special toy or blanket. Don’t make him feel “babyish” for wanting to hang on to it or insist that he leave it at home. He’s likely to stop carrying around that mangy-looking monkey by the time he turns 4. By then, he’ll have learned other ways to soothe himself if he’s scared.
Explain, expose, and explore. A scared preschooler can sometimes get over what’s worrying him if you provide a simple, rational explanation — words now have greater power than in the past. You may put an end to his fear of being lost in a crowd by saying, “As long as you stay next to me and hold my hand, we won’t lose each other. But if we do accidentally get separated, stay still and I’ll find you.”
If past experiences are fueling his fear — getting a vaccination, for instance — don’t lie or sugarcoat things. But don’t dwell on the bad stuff, either. Gently tell him that while the shot may sting at first, it will be over quickly, and then suggest that the two of you do something fun afterward. It’s important to stay with your child during any painful procedure to show that you support the treatment and haven’t abandoned him, says Howard.
You can also help your 4-year-old learn about frightening things from a safe distance. Howard suggests exposing your child to potentially scary experiences through books or videos or in a controlled manner while you’re present. Such limited exposure provides a safe context for him to deal with his fears. (Of course, you should avoid exposing your child to anything horrific, gory, or otherwise inappropriate, either on television or in books.)
For instance, if he’s afraid to ride a bike because he doesn’t want to fall and skin his knees, then he may benefit from reading stories about a young child who learns to ride a bike with great success — and without injuries. Similarly, he may get over his fear of monsters under the bed if he sees a video about a little boy who befriends some fun and friendly monsters. If he’s scared of animals, a trip to a petting zoo, where the creatures can be stroked and fed, may help.
Problem-solve together. If your child’s afraid of the dark, get a nightlight for his room. Other tactics you can use to banish bedtime fears include a designated guard (a beloved stuffed animal), “monster spray” (water in a spray-bottle), or a magic phrase that wards off unwelcome visitors. Through trial and error, you and your preschooler will figure out what helps to increase his sense of power and control over things that go bump in the night, or in the day. Just don’t expect him to overcome his fears right away. It can take months — even up to a year — before a child gets over a fear, says Coleman.
Practice through pretend play. If your child is terrified of the doctor, he may benefit from role-playing what happens at the doctor’s office (a toy doctor’s kit can help). If your preschooler shrinks at the sight of strangers, he may feel less frightened if he acts out such encounters using dolls or stuffed animals. If people in costumes scare him, dress up together — don’t forget face paint — to help ease his fears.
Preschoolers may also learn how to relieve their anxiety by playing with their peers. Dressing up as noisy monsters or making a haunted house can be fun, not frightening, when your child feels he is the one in control and has some buddies close by.
Don’t share your fears. If your preschooler sees you break out in a sweat because you’re afraid of flying, or if you cringe when you walk into the dentist’s office, then he’s likely to feel scared of these things, too. So try to work through your own anxieties or at least try to downplay them.
It’s okay, however, to confess that you didn’t like going to the dentist as a kid, but you went to keep your teeth healthy. It helps a child to know he’s not alone, and that you, too, learned to overcome something scary.
What to watch out for
If your preschooler’s fears routinely interfere with his normal daily activities — if he won’t go to bed because he’s afraid of the dark or he insists on staying home out of fear of seeing a dog — then talk to his pediatrician, especially if his fears have intensified over time. He may have a genuine phobia (a phobia is an intense and persistent irrational fear).