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Childhood Fears and Anxieties

Experts describe how parents can help when their child is afraid.
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WebMD Feature

Things that go bump in the night. The bane of Miss Muffet's existence. A teacher's harsh rebuke. What do they all have in common? Plenty: They're all typical childhood anxieties and fears.

Nothing to worry (too much) about. But try telling that to your child! As a parent, you can make a big difference in how well your child handles common worries like these. Here are a few ideas that may help.

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The Many Sides of a Child's Fears

Not all fear is bad. In fact, a little fear serves as an insurance policy. "Without fear, we'd jump headlong into things we shouldn't," says Tamar E. Chansky, PhD, author of Freeing Your Child from Anxiety. Chansky is also director of the Children's Center for OCD and Anxiety in Plymouth Meeting, Pa.

Some fear is evolutionary in nature, says Chansky. For example, many children -- and adults -- continue to fear things outside their experience. Their brains are wired to protect them from snakes, for example, even though the average person rarely encounters a slithery serpent, venomous or not.

Some children experience anxiety disorders, often a strong emotional response to an intense experience. But mostly, a child's fears are a predictable rite of passage.

Common Childhood Anxieties and Fears

Your child's "anxiety landscape" changes over time. Here are some of the most common childhood anxieties he or she is likely to experience at different stages of development.

Fears of an Infant or Toddler

  • Loud noises or sudden movements
  • Large looming objects
  • Strangers
  • Separation
  • Changes in the house

Fears During Preschool Years

  • The dark
  • Noises at night
  • Masks
  • Monsters and ghosts
  • Animals such as dogs

Fears During School Years

  • Snakes and spiders
  • Storms and natural disasters
  • Being home alone
  • Fear of a teacher who's angry
  • Scary news or TV shows
  • Injury, illness, doctors, shots, or death
  • Fear of failure and rejection

Easing Fears in Infants or Toddlers

In the ideal situation, an infant's world is framed by parental security and a sense of calm. Anything that disrupts that -- a loud noise or a stranger, for example -- creates fear, says Chansky. One simple thing you can do to maintain calm is to establish a predictable routine. Also, minimize the numbers of caretakers in your child's life. Strong bonding with your child -- through regular touch, eye contact, and talking or singing -- creates a foundation of trust, helping to inoculate your child against future anxiety, too.

Easing Fears in Preschoolers

As their world expands, preschoolers continue to fear new places and people. New exposures bring fear of the unexpected, Chansky tells WebMD.

"Some of this is the result of concrete experiences, but some of it is due to their developing imagination." Being able to imagine that there really isn't anything lurking in that dark closet is a wonderful accomplishment, she says. But, at this age, they haven't quite mastered the skill enough to know how to calm themselves.

Kristin Lagattuta, PhD, assistant psychology professor at the University of California at Davis, does research with preschoolers. She studies how they make connections between the mind and emotions. Lagattuta explains that young children around age 4 or 5 do OK telling the imaginary from the real -- unless it is connected with something fearful. "When the emotion is real, then it is hard for them to determine that the experience that goes with it isn't real, as well."

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