Fear and anxiety are a normal part of growing up and are a healthy signal for children to learn if something is safe or dangerous in their environment. (Think about how helpful fear is to a gazelle!)
Toddlers in particular have many common fears that they will outgrow as they continue to develop and head into the preschool and school-age years. Of course if you have concerns that your toddler's fears are too big or get in the way of everyday life, consult your child's pediatrician.
Why kids fear it: At this age, toddlers begin to understand when something is about to happen out of their usual routine—even if they're not sure what it is. Seemingly normal experiences for adults (getting a haircut, seeing a costumed character at the mall, meeting a neighbor's new puppy) can be confusing and scary to toddlers and result in tears.
By 24 months, kids are starting to realize that they are little beings in a very big world! As your child continues to develop, he or she will gain the ability to make associations with fun events and be better able to predict what will happen next.
What parents can do: Very close to the change in routine, use simple language to explain what will happen next: "I know we usually drive home after daycare, but today we're going to go through a car wash. It's a big washing machine that we drive into, and you're going to see lots of soap and maybe hear loud noises. We're going to be safe and dry in the car."
Your toddler will look to you to set the emotional tone of an event. If your child is fearful during a new experience, first acknowledge her reaction "That balloon scared you, didn't it?"—and follow it with comfort. Most toddlers turn to their caregivers for reassurance when something is scary (learn more about that here) and when fueled back up with confidence are off to explore the world again.
Toddlers are embarking on a journey of curiosity and exploration, but are still reliant on you as their home base. Your child may need to stay closer to you during new experiences with gentle encouragement to explore with you by his side.
What not to do: Don't avoid new experiences or scold a child for his reactions to a fun event—we may call whacking a psychedelic donkey with a stick until he bursts forth candy a "piñata," but to your child it's just plain terrifying.
Never force a toddler to try a new experience when she is at the height of her fear. With practice and your help, young toddlers begin to master novel events as they develop.