Children experience worries and fears for a variety of reasons. The good news is that most childhood fears are mild and often disappear over time. In fact, the presence of a childhood fear often indicates the development of higher level thought as well as new experiences and challenges.
Fears can be the result of imagination, stories, or news reports. Children may fear the dark, animals, thunderstorms, fires, kidnappers, war, or death. Fears can also develop from real-life experiences. For example, when feeding ducks at a local pond, a duck may attack a small child in the rush for bread, resulting in a fear of ducks or birds.
When dealing with a child’s fear, speak calmly and gather information about what is feared. Children notice parental emotions, and an anxious parent may increase fear in the child. Children benefit from praise when they try to manage their fear.
Childhood fears do not usually decrease with teasing or demands for bravery. Parents may help their children by telling them how they will keep them safe. Children may also benefit from discussion about what they may do to help themselves feel better and less fearful. It is often good to not change the child’s daily routines in order to have the child avoid the fear, as this might send the message that the situation is truly scary and worth avoiding.
In the example of a child fearing ducks, exposing your child to duck-related toys or live ducks in a controlled setting may help ease the fear. The idea is to reduce the fear of ducks by increasing the child’s positive experiences with them.
When specific fears result in excessive distress, interfere with daily activities, and last longer than six months, a child and their parents may benefit from professional help. It is estimated that specific phobias are present in only about 5 percent of children. Cognitive-behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders has been shown to be effective for children as young as 4 years old.
If your child experiences intense, uncontrollable anxiety and avoids situations associated with the fear for more than six months, talk to a child psychologist trained in cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Reviewed by Dr. Kristie Rivers, September 2020
- Most childhood fears disappear over time.
- Children can fear anything, ranging from animals to death.
- Children notice emotions, so speak calmly and reassure their safety with you.
- Do not hide your children from their fears, but rather keep their routines as normal as possible.