Preschoolers cling firmly to their beliefs, so dealing with their fears can take considerable patience. It helps to know that although three- and four-year-olds are highly susceptible to scary thoughts, the right response on your part can help them work through their anxiety.
A preschooler's fears stem largely from his active imagination and from the difficulty he has distinguishing fantasy from reality. Just as he trusts that Santa will visit on Christmas Eve, he may also believe that monsters lurk under the bed. Three- and four-year-olds are also making huge cognitive leaps, so they're more aware of danger. Their growing sense of independence heightens this awareness. "As little kids step away from us, they realize how big the world is and how vulnerable they are," says Nancy Jordan, a psychotherapist in Bellevue, Washington. In response, they ricochet from an "I'm a big kid" attitude to one of "Don't leave me; I'm scared."
By the time she's five or six, your child will understand more clearly what's real and what isn't, and her fears will generally diminish. Until then, you may be tempted to comfort her by stating the obvious—that monsters aren't real. But this is unlikely to help.
Unrealistic Fears are Still Real
No matter how unrealistic your child's fears may seem to you, they are real to him. "Telling a child that he shouldn't be afraid doesn't make him feel brave," says Marilyn Segal, PhD, a developmental psychologist at Nova Southeastern University, in Fort Lauderdale. "It only adds a new fear—that he can't tell you he's afraid because you'll think he's a baby." Similarly, teasing and belittling serve only to keep fears hidden.
Forcing a child to confront her fears is also unproductive, says Madeleine Nathan, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Newburyport, Massachusetts. At the same time, she says, letting a child rely on you completely for protection from imaginary terrors won't help her overcome them. If your four-year-old fears going to the bathroom alone at night, go with her at first, Dr. Nathan suggests. Over the following few weeks or months, ease yourself out of the picture.
Reinforce progress and practice, practice, practice. That's what Carla Mitchell did when her three-year-old, Kristen, developed an aversion to costumed characters. "It took a lot of visits to Chuck E. Cheese's and amusement parks, but each time, seeing the characters got a little easier," says Mitchell, of Douglasville, Georgia.
When Fear Can Be Helpful
Encourage your child to talk about what he's afraid of and why. "Often if you're able to talk about your child's fears, they become less scary," says Jane Nelsen, EdD, coauthor of Positive Discipline A-Z. You could also reveal a childhood fear of your own and explain how you overcame it.
If some elements of your preschooler's fears are reasonable, acknowledge that. For children with a fear of big dogs, for instance, "point out that sometimes being afraid of dogs is good," Dr. Segal says. "Then help your child recognize signs of a friendly dog, such as tail wagging, and come up with a strategy for coping with unfriendly dogs."