Top Toddler Fears—and How to Conquer Them!
Learn what tops the list of the scariest stuff for young children and how you can use playtime to conquer those worries
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.
Why kids fear it: Yikes! Noises that are benign for adults can sure be startling to toddlers: We know that a smoke detector’s wail will eventually stop, but a loud noise like that could mean anything to a young child. Toddlers don’t yet have a full grasp on cause and effect, so loud noises may seem random and like possible signals of danger. Since toddlers have not yet mastered regulating big feelings, a startle can lead to fear and tears.
What parents can do: Young toddlers are dependent on their caregivers to regulate their emotions—especially big ones such as fear. Help your child identify her feeling by naming it, while offering her comfort. Then explain the source and cause of the loud noise to her in simple language. (Toddlers will increasingly use words to describe their feelings when adults provide an everyday model.)
If it was the crash of a pan that scared your child, you can hold your toddler in your arms and show him what happened (not necessarily with with the big noise again, although, of course, some toddlers will enjoy repeating the noise themselves!). As your toddler gets older, your comfort will be the blueprint for him to soothe himself when he is startled.
What not to do: Don’t belittle your child’s response to the noise. Kids’ reactions are real to them even if the sound isn’t scary to an adult.
Ouch! Getting Hurt!
Why kids fear it: Toddlers aren’t yet sure that a bump or bruise won’t lead to a bigger injury (or loss of body part!). In the moment, they may be terrified: They haven’t yet learned that they will eventually be OK, but that it just hurts really bad right now.
What parents can do: When he does get hurt, provide comfort and reassurance to your fumbling, tumbling toddler that he really is all right. Acknowledge that the bump did hurt and name his feeling—kisses on the boo-boo at this age can go a long way! Remind your child (silly as it sounds) that his body is still intact and he will be OK.
As your child gets older, he will be able to reassure himself, out loud, in the same way you’re doing to him these days: “I’m OK. A Band-Aid will do the trick!”
What not to do: Don’t overfocus on the boo-boo. If you react as if the fall was a really big deal and withhold reassurance that your child will be OK, it will be a very big deal to him.
Keep an eye on your toddler for safety’s sake, but don’t limit his ability to explore and learn. Toddlers overcome their fears of getting hurt as they get older and learn that they can understand more about cause and effect and the integrity of their bodies.
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