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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.

Takeaways

  • 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.

References

  1. National Institute of Mental Health. Anxiety Disorders.
  2. Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
  3. Ollendick TH Hagopian LP and King NJ 1997. Specific phobias in children.  In Davey GCL, editor.  Phobias:  A handbook of theory, research and treatment.  John Wiley and sons; London : 1997 pp 201-223
  4. Hirshfeld et al J Consult Clin Psyol. 2010 Aug; 78(4): 498-510

Comments

  1. I’m not sure how young fears usually start, but my son seems to be completely fearless at 16.5 months old. He has no problems with strangers (which could be a bad thing…), likes when people jump out and try to scare him (he squeals and giggles with pure glee), climbs anything he can even though he has fallen before (and it did scare him in the moment, but not hurt him really physically), and still LOVES feeding our ducks (despite having been bitten in the mad rush for tasty morsels several times). Oh, he also loves the Jack in the Box he got for his birthday. He flinches when the music gets to the part where he knows the sock monkey (thank goodness it’s not a creepy clown or else I’d be scared to death!) is about to jump out, and then laughs uncontrollably when he does! Is it bad that he has no fear?

    Reply
    1. Going to a birthday party? That’s quite a whopper of a lie!

      Reply
  2. My 22 month old is oddly afraid of things. Like pop-up books and battery operated toys. He’ll get over it sometimes, but it’s just kind of weird. He’s not sensitive to sound or anything. It’s just things that move or something he’s not expecting that freaks him out. It doesn’t seem to last, but I just wanted to know if this was normal?

    Reply

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