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
Separating from You
Why kids fear it: As your child develops into toddlerhood, she makes many cognitive advances (that is, big improvements in how she thinks), including being more aware of different people and a bigger and much scarier world.
She feels more secure in this environment when you are there. She also understands that you and she are separate people and is just mastering the knowledge that when you leave you will come back. Though this was a skill she started working on Learn more about transitional objects here.) Have your child’s caregiver play something fun and engaging with her right before you leave. Make sure you say goodbye with a hug, kiss, and reassurance that you will be back. Keep your tone light: If your toddler reads that you are also in distress over separation, it will increase hers!
What not to do: Don’t sneak out the door and surprise your toddler with your absence—unpredictability is scary for kids under 2. It is really important that your toddler learns to trust that when you say goodbye, you will be back.
Don’t avoid practicing separations because of your child’s reactions. Don’t tease or make a joke about your toddler’s reactions to you leaving.
Why kids fear it: The friendly, wiggly lab next door may not incite fear in grown-ups but could bring tears to your toddler. Dogs are very big to pint-size toddlers, and cognitively toddlers have no way to understand their unpredictable movements. Loud barking can be startling to your little one. It makes sense from a toddler’s perspective to proceed with caution or avoid dogs all together.
What parents can do: Using their developing play skills can be a great way to help toddlers express their fears and practice in play. Engage in play with your toddler using a stuffed animal dog or age-appropriate toy dog. You can have characters model how to say hi to a dog in play.
Start first with watching dogs and seeing other people greet dogs, especially older kids. Introduce your toddler to a dog that you know is well behaved and won’t jump. Offer reassurance and keep your toddler in your arms for first greetings. Take extra care to go at your toddler’s pace.
What not to do: Don’t force a toddler to greet a dog. Some caution is healthy for toddlers since not all dogs are friendly and some are overly rambunctious. As your child grows, he will learn from you the signs of a friendly dog and how to approach a new animal. Never leave your toddler unattended with a dog. Don’t tease or devalue your toddler’s fears, and don’t avoid dogs altogether.
Why kids fear it: Cognitively, young toddlers cannot yet fully understand the relativity of size. So, if the water can go down the drain, kids under 2 see no reason why their own arms, fingers, toes, and belly can’t follow! Plus, the loud gurgling sound can be startling or scary and highlight the loss of all of that water and potentially themselves next.
As toddlers begin to understand the size of their bodies relative to the drain their fear will diminish. Toilets (especially loud public ones) present an even bigger version of the drain. Imagine what the swirling water could look like to a young toddler who simply understands that the movement’s purpose is to whisk things away.
What parents can do: Start off with a smaller drain when your child is not in the bathtub. Allow your toddler to play with toys in a sink, then demonstrate at the end that the toys still stay in when the water drains. During bathtime, avoid draining the tub while your toddler is sitting in the bath. Offer reassurance when she is afraid, but don’t be surprised if she doesn’t believe you when you say she can’t go down the drain.
What not to do: Never force your toddler to face her fear of the drain. She really believes she could go down that drain! With some sensitivity and pacing, your child will outgrow and master this fear.
Why kids fear it: Young toddlers look to you for signals of what is dangerous in their environment. Your messages of fear help them determine what to avoid and what is safe. You may think your child doesn’t notice when you jump away from that hairy spider, but she sure is paying attention.
Your toddler’s looking to you for cues about what is safe is a normative and healthy part of her survival (sometimes called social referencing). But during this time, she could pick up on fears that you don’t want to pass along!
What parents can do: Knowing that young toddlers really are paying attention, think about which fears you have that kids may pick up on. Your partner can play a role in making sure that your child does not develop the same fear, especially if you are not quite sure you want to take that on. Again, play can be a great way for kids to be exposed to a lot of different situations in a very controlled way.
Remember, depending on where you live, it may be good for toddlers to have caution around live spiders, which may pose a danger to your little one.
What not to do: Don’t assume that your fears will be helpful for your toddler. Think about the top three and see if they make sense in terms of your toddler’s safety. And don’t be too hard on yourself!
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