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Fears - young children

Fear; phobia; anxiety; worry; separation; stranger; emotions; feelings ;

Children's worries and reactions to situations vary enormously. Most children will be worried and fearful from time to time.

Contents

Parents often worry about their children's fears and anxieties. You can help your children overcome fears and to have the confidence needed to be able to face up to the hard things that will happen in their lives.

This topic looks at fears for young children. There is another topic 'Fears and phobias – older children and adolescents'.

What are anxieties, fears and phobias?

  • Fear is a feeling that triggers a number of changes in the body.
    • When something happens that a person is afraid of, the body prepares to either tackle the situation or to run away.
    • To do this, the heart rate and breathing rate get faster and the person may turn pale, perspire, have an unpleasant feeling in his stomach ('butterflies') or feel shaky.
  • While fear has a particular cause (eg. a person, animal, situation that someone is afraid of), anxiety is a more general unpleasant feeling, where it may not be clear what the person is worried about.
  • A phobia is a really strong fear of something specific. The fear is much stronger than the risk of harm and it interferes with things the person wants to do.

It is normal to feel worried about some situations, and being afraid is the way we can be prepared to meet and deal with danger – it makes us alert and ready to take action.

Young children will be naturally fearful of some things (such as being separated from a parent) and they need to be taught to be fearful of certain other things to keep safe. The dangers of traffic and electricity are too great, and young children cannot understand them, so fear helps them keep safe (parents also need to keep them safe and not rely on fear alone!)

When deciding whether your child's fear is a problem, you need to consider:

  • Is it reasonable for a child to feel this way?
  • Is the fear interfering with the everyday life of the child or family?

Note: If a child has a lot of fears and worries, it is important to think about what is happening in her life. For example, is there illness in the family, are her parents having lots of arguments, etc? Sometimes fearfulness and phobias begin at a time of trauma or difficulty.

Babies

Babies are born with an in-built response to sudden loud noises, some movements and anything unfamiliar or unusual.

When babies are afraid, they cry. This is their only way to bring an adult to keep them safe.

Separation anxiety

At six or seven months of age, babies are usually friendly and smile easily, however they usually have a preference for their parent or main caregiver.

By seven to eight months, they start to want to have you in sight at all times and may be upset or cry when they cannot see you.

  • If they can crawl they will probably follow you – wherever you go!
  • You are the centre of their world, and when you leave they feel 'separation anxiety'. They cannot know where you are and do not understand that you will come back. See the topic 'Separation anxiety'.

When long separations happen – for example through being in hospital, or a parent leaving or being ill - the child can show severe anxiety.

  • Generally the child will cry or protest first, hoping that he can change things and bring his carer back.
  • If this does not happen, the child may lose interest in people and in playing, or may just play the same thing over and over again.
  • If the main caregiver (eg. parent) leaves or is away for a long time, it is important that other special adults spend as much time as possible caring for the child. It also helps if the usual routine can be followed.
  • See the topics 'Children in hospital' and 'Family break-up'.

Fear of strangers

  • Children form close bonds of love and trust with important people in their lives, particularly their parents or their main caregiver.
  • Many babies develop a fear of strangers, generally sometime between 5 and 12 months of age, and this often lasts until they are up to two years old. They may even seem afraid of people they know fairly well, such as their grandparents.
  • Not all babies are fearful of strangers, but most are for a while.
  • They are more likely to be afraid if they have had little contact with people outside their immediate family.

Ways you can help your baby

  • It is better not to force your baby to go to a stranger, but allow him to look at the person from the security of your lap.
  • Your baby can pick up your feelings of confidence in others, and learn that they are safe to be with.
  • You can reassure grandparents and others who love the baby that this will not last; it is part of learning to deal with a big new world.

If you plan to leave your baby, it helps if the baby has become used to the child minder before being left.

  • Start with short separations at first and gradually increase the amount of time.
  • Many children have a special comfort object – a dummy, favourite blanket, piece of cloth, etc. It helps them feel safe, relax and to go to sleep while you are apart. See the topic 'Dummies, thumbs and other comforters'.
  • It is also helpful, if a baby is being left with someone else, to keep routines as much as possible like those at home.

Toddlers

  • Young children do not have an understanding of size, space and time, so they may, for example, be afraid of going down the plughole (or toilet) with the water, or get upset when you leave because they don't understand what you mean when you say you will be back at 5 o'clock.
    • You may have to do things like bath your child in a baby bath or bowl without a plughole for a while.
  • Toddlers, especially 2 to 3 year olds, are often fearful. They have very powerful emotions, which they have not yet learnt to control. Something new can be very frightening, even if we think that there is no risk to them.
  • Some toddlers try very hard to please their parents, and they can be very frightened if something goes wrong.
  • They can also be fearful of other people's powerful emotions. A parent's anger or despair can be very frightening to them. See the topic 'Yelling'.
    • It will help if you can look at what is happening in their lives and their relationships to find what might be making them feel strongly, and help them to talk about it.
    • Let them know that it is OK to feel cross sometimes.
    • Make sure they know that you will not let them hurt others, such as a new baby, or let anyone hurt them.
  • One of the ways toddlers deal with their fears – eg. at bedtime – is to want to keep the same routine all the time. They may want a drink in the same glass, the same story and the same number of kisses every night. This helps them feel safe.

Preschool and school age children

  • Children (and most people) are afraid of things that they cannot understand or control, and strange or new situations or objects. They can be fearful of many things, because so much of the world is new to them.
  • Fears may also be learned.
    • Sometimes they come from a direct experience with something that hurt, eg. being bitten by a dog.
    • A fear can also be taught by parents, brothers and sisters, playmates, teachers, etc. For example, if the parent always gets afraid when she sees a spider or goes in a lift, the child is likely to be afraid of these things.
    • Fears can also be caused by seeing or hearing about a danger, eg. on TV.
  • Fear of being left alone at night or of the dark is still common among preschool children.
  • Children also have vivid imaginations, and some of the things that they imagine they also believe are real, eg. monsters (especially children under three, who don't yet really know what is real and what is not real).
    • Young children need to be reassured if something is not real, but it may take them some time to really believe there is nothing to be afraid of.
    • It is important that you don't act as if you believe the fears are real. There can be a fine line between pretending to look for monsters yourself which suggests that you think the monsters are real, and showing your child that there are no monsters.
  • Children of school age may be worried about burglars, afraid of having no friends, afraid of bullies, anxious about school work, or starting a new school or starting high school.
  • Older children often worry that their parents may separate, especially if they see this happening to friends' families, or if there are a lot of family arguments.
  • Many children worry that a parent may die.

Anxiety is 'infectious' and can pass easily from one person to another. Worries and fears can pass easily from parent to child, and from child to parent.

  • In some ways, this passing of anxieties from parent to child can be helpful to keep the child safe, eg. the child learns that it is not safe to go on the road because you show that this is something dangerous.
  • However, if you are too worried about too many things, the children are likely to be more anxious.

Helping children overcome fears

Open

Give children information about their fears. Answer their questions about things like wars, death, hospitals, disease, etc. Knowing about things helps to make children less fearful (but not too much detail for young children). If the feared thing - such as war - is somewhere else in the world, make sure that they know that it is far away and there is no risk of harm happening to them or you.

Validate

This means listening to, understanding and not making fun of your child's fears.

  • Respond to your children's fear or cries by reassuring your children that they are safe, and cuddling or patting them until they calm down.
  • However, while you show your child that you understand that her fears are real, it is important not to let her think that you are also afraid (unless it is genuine) because it will make her more fearful.

Encourage

Praise and reward your child when he makes a step towards fighting or confronting his fear, eg. getting closer to a dog if he is frightened of dogs.

  • Help your child work out small steps he can take to overcome his fear, eg. first just look at pictures of dogs, then get close to a gentle puppy, etc.
  • Don't force your child to fully confront his fear, but take it a small step at a time and let him know you are proud of him when he does. It sometimes is best to put off your attempts to help him confront his fears if he is very anxious and there is no need for him to conquer the fear straight away.

Routines

These help children know what to expect and make children feel more secure and confident, eg. bedtime routines can help a child with fear of the dark.

  • Prepare children in advance if there is to be a change of routine.

Control

Having some control of the situation often helps with fears.

  • Make sure your child has his own comforters, eg. dummy, blanket, night light etc.
  • If your child is old enough, ask him what he thinks would help him, or make some suggestions and let him choose.
  • For example, if the child is afraid of burglars, he could go around with you to check that the room or house is safe, with windows locked, etc.

Opportunities

Provide opportunities for your child to develop skills and gain confidence in her own ability. Confidence can't be developed on praise alone. It is success and being able to do things that build up a child's confidence.

  • Let your child try things that she can do, and then give her lots of support and approval.
  • Read children's stories that deal with fearful events that children overcome.
  • Provide times for fantasy play, dress-ups, drawings, etc., where children can express their fears and take control of them.

Model

Children learn most by copying important adults in their lives (using you as a model to copy from).

  • Show that you are calm and confident in the situation which is frightening to your child.
  • Remember that children can learn fears from parents, and if you show anxiety in a situation your child may pick it up.

Exercise

Lots of physical activity helps reduce stress and also helps children to sleep well. Relaxation exercises and stories can also be helpful to use at bedtime or in times of extreme anxiety.

Resources

Three topics on our Kid's Health site may help you talk with young school age children about fears: 'Anxiety - when you are worrying about things', 'Bullying' and 'Stress - learning to relax'.

The Raising Children Network site has many topics about childhood fears and anxiety including

Raising Children website is produced with the help of an extensive network including the Australian Government.

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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