Julia has never been especially fearful, so I was caught off guard when just before her fifth birthday she became terrified of being poisoned. She cried after she accidentally swallowed a crayon shaving. Even the beloved cherry-red lipsticks that were her favorite part of dress-up now seemed fraught with danger. “Mommy! By mistake lipstick got on my tongue!” she yelled, running into my room one day. “Am I going to die?”
Like any conscientious mom, I explained to Julia that most things are kid-safe. I showed her the word “nontoxic” on crayon boxes. I tried to convey to my distraught preschooler in every way I could think of that she just wasn’t going to be poisoned.
But in my heart of hearts I blamed myself. Had my constant reminders about putting things in her mouth pushed Julia into some sort of phobia? Thankfully, before I had a chance to press the “I’m a Lousy Mommy” button, something happened: Her fear disappeared. Like a summer thunderstorm, it blew over as quickly as it had moved in.
I still don’t know exactly what caused Julia’s fright; nothing bad had happened to ignite it. But I did find out that fears are a natural part of how kids learn to understand their environment, according to John Piacentini, Ph.D., director of the Childhood OCD, Anxiety and Tic Disorders Program at the University of California, Los Angeles. Every developmental passage, from infancy on, is accompanied by some kind of anxiety, ranging from monsters to vacuum cleaners. “What seems logical to us isn’t always to a child,” he says.
Whatever the source of your little one’s fear, it’s how you help her confront it that’s key.
Jeanne McDowell is a Los Angeles correspondent for Time.
Babies: First frights
Infants come into the world with no real awareness of its dangers. Even so, they’re hardwired to reflexively bawl at sudden loud noises and cling if they sense they’re falling. It’s at 6 or 7 months that many babies actually feel afraid. As they begin to develop a memory of familiar faces, anyone they see who isn’t Mom or Dad is potentially a stranger to be feared. An infant who may have delighted in being passed from one person to another can suddenly get hysterical when he’s taken away from his mother.
Anna Kanaley, 15 months, became terrified of the two women who frequently clean her family’s house in Arlington, Virginia, much to her mom’s embarrassment. “One week Anna loved them,” Victoria Kanaley says, “and then she couldn’t stop crying when she saw them.” So, when Anna started to wail, her mom would pick her up and remind her who these women were — and then make an exit. After several months, Anna was again happily reaching for them.
Just as babies are scared of unknown people, they can be startled by almost anything unfamiliar, whether it’s a bearded man or something as innocuous as a flushing toilet. When Alex Ramsey was 1, a balloon happened to burst near him; the sound was so surprising that even the sight of a balloon terrified him after that. “You can imagine what it was like at birthday parties,” says his mother, Susan Picascia of Studio City, California. To calm him, she’d gently explain that the sound wouldn’t hurt him and tried to avoid balloons when she could. The best way to handle fears in infants and very young children is to do just what Kanaley and Picascia did, say experts: Orchestrate the environment. Soothe your baby with reassuring hugs and calm words if he’s frightened, but don’t force him to face whatever he’s afraid of.
Toddlers: Everyday terrors
At around 18 months, toddlers begin to struggle to distinguish between reality and make-believe. A child may love Barney on TV, but the big beast that shows up at a birthday party can be confusing and overwhelming because he’s so much larger than the one on TV.
At the same time, toddlers are more aware of what’s around them, and parts of everyday life they didn’t notice before can become terrifying. Bathtime, for instance, was frightening for Austin Truesdale of Plainfield, Illinois, when he was 2. “He was positive he’d go down the drain,” says his mother, Angela. She and her husband found a solution: Austin agreed to sit in a bathtub ring that was suctioned to the back of the tub, and his parents filled the bath with bubbles. When it drained, they showed him how the bubbles left the tub last because they were big — and when Austin saw how much bigger he was, bathtime became a lot easier. “Well, now he thinks it’s hilarious to unplug the drain midbath,” says Truesdale.
While the fear of going down the bathtub drain, or the toilet, is common, more idiosyncratic ones also pop up. At 2, Sabrina Flood-Wylie got scared whenever her mom drove on a freeway. Pretty problematic, since her family lives in southern California. “It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t the speed that frightened her but the elevation and her fear of falling off the road,” says her mother, Peggy, of Valley Village. “Once I started showing Sabrina that the painted white lines on the road told us where to drive, she was better.”
It’s this kind of gentle reassurance and basic, truthful information that most successfully assuages a toddler’s anxiety. If a child senses that you’re not afraid, chances are she’ll follow suit. At this age it’s also okay to expose her to something she fears; some contact with it, in a controlled setting with you right next to her, will probably help. If she’s afraid of loud noises, for example, don’t bend over backward to avoid noisy places. Explain where the sound comes from, keeping it short and simple.
Preschoolers: Wild flights of fancy
Why are preschoolers afraid of monsters? They have a better awareness of the world’s dangers, coupled with a big imagination. “As adults, we hear a noise outside at night and attribute it to the wind. But it’s more satisfying for a child to think it’s something scary than not to be able to understand it,” says Piacentini. Besides, preschoolers (more so than toddlers) realize they can be hurt by things.
Kids also overhear adults talking and trade information with friends. Even though they may not understand everything they hear, they can be scared of it all the same. Nick Stanger, a 5-year-old in Lakeville, Minnesota, worries that he’ll be sent to jail: His dad, John, is a police officer, and Nick knows that one of the things his dad does is put bad people behind bars. John has explained that there’s a difference between criminals and misbehaving preschoolers, but the jail-time fear still lingers a bit.
It’s important to try to understand what your child is really afraid of. If he tells you he’s frightened of lightning, for instance, don’t automatically try to reassure him by saying that he’s not going to get hit — what freaks him out may be the accompanying sound of thunder or the way the flashes of light make scary shadows on his wall. Then try to give him coping mechanisms, such as doing an activity that will distract him or singing a special song whenever he hears thunderclaps.
The challenge is to straddle the line between reacting and overreacting to a child’s fears. While you shouldn’t dismiss or mock a fear, say experts, overindulgence can make your child feel that there really is something to be scared about. Too many checks under the bed for monsters, for example, may prompt him to wonder, “Why is Dad looking so many times? Maybe there is something there.”
Grade-schoolers: More grown-up concerns
You may think that by this age your child has outgrown her first terrors, but some hang on. She may still be afraid of the dark or monsters (though now it’s related to something scary she’s seen on TV rather than some unknown bogeyman that lurks only in her imagination).
Kids are also becoming more concerned that something bad could happen to their parents. Your child may be afraid you’ll be hurt in a specific way, such as a car accident, or she may just have a vague worry that she’ll lose you.
When children first hear about death, they tend to think it’s reversible. As its permanence dawns on them, many feel anxious not just about you but about dying themselves. Address your child’s concerns in the simplest terms: You might say that when someone dies, his body stops working. Reassure her that you’re both very healthy and that people don’t usually die unless they are old or very sick or have a very bad accident.
The good news is that most anxieties are nothing for you to worry about. Being scared sometimes is simply part of being human. So while you’re consoling your tearful child, you can take comfort in knowing that in the morning, the fear will most likely vanish with the monsters.