Habitot Children's Museum
October 2017

Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers
Manage their Fears

Normally developing toddlers and preschoolers have both real and imagined fears. They live in a world full of new things and experiences and they are just learning to manage strong emotions that arise when they are surprised or afraid. It is helpful to separate the real from imagined, and give them skills and knowledge to deal with those that are real.

The month of Halloween can help children see and experience some scary things in a playful and manageable way. Talking to children about things you see, answering questions about strange or unusual things in a straightforward manner, and sharing that everybody get scared sometimes can give your child more confidence in facing his or her fears.

Some of the biggest fears for young children come when they realize how much they depend on parents for safety and security. Their worries that something might happen to their parents are real and genuinely felt. These fears should be acknowledged - not dismissed – and children should receive the reassurances they need. Remind them of the famous Mr. Rogers’ words: “In times of fear, look for the helpers; there will always be helpers.”

Here are some tips on dealing with your children’s everyday fears and help them grow into strong, confident people.

  • Keep predictable routines.  One of the ways toddlers can manage their fears is to stick to routines. At bedtime, for example, your child may want a drink from the same glass, read the same story or get the same number of kisses every night. Maintaining these routines helps her feel safe.
  • Clear up false beliefs.Of course you know that haircuts don’t hurt and that people don’t get sucked down drains, but your child may not. However silly their ideas, don’t laugh at them. Take their fears seriously and tell your child more about what is real and what is imagined and what to expect and why. The more your child knows, the less he'll worry.
  • Help your child gain control. Having some control of the situation often resolves fears. If your child is wary, help him manage his fears by asking him what he thinks would help him, or make some suggestions and let him choose. For example, if the child is afraid of monsters, he could check under the bed or in the closet with you to make sure he is safe.  Creative solutions, like a homemade “monster spray” can be fun and effective!  However, if a situation – a movie, amusement park ride or place – is truly scaring your child, it’s probably not developmentally appropriate to expose him longer. It’s ok to leave and be the support your child needs.
  • Model calmness.  Show that you are calm and confident in situations that are frightening to your child. Remember that children will pick up fears from parents, and if you show anxiety in a situation your child may amplify it or respond equally fearfully.
  • Look for role models. If your child is terrified of the monkey bars at the playground, encourage her to watch an older sibling or another kid around her age play on them without pressuring her to take a turn. Seeing somebody she can relate to confronting her fear may give her a shot of courage.
  • Be mindful of what you expose your child to.  There are a lot of scary commercials on TV even during daytime hours, and the news is filled with violence and tragedy.  Be careful what you expose your child to – even passively in the background – because scary images or stories can really take a hold on developing young brains.
  • Give opportunities to practice courage.The best way to confront a fear is to do so in a very safe space.  If your child is scared of something you think they can learn to handle, such as spooky Halloween decorations, show her the decorations during the daytime to demystify them and gently expose her to them while you hold her hand and keep her comfortable and feeling safe.
  • Know when to get support.  If your child has extraordinary fears and anxieties that are interfering with everyday life or with family dynamics, reach out for support from her Pediatrician or a Child Therapist. There are a lot of skilled professionals available to help with big things, and we should never be afraid to call upon their loving expertise.
2065 Kittredge St., Berkeley   |   Habitot.org   |   510. 647.1111
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