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Children's Health

Childhood Fears and Anxieties

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

How can you help your child with fears like these?

At any age, break the challenge into small steps, says Chanksy. She suggests tackling that big, dark cave of a closet by turning it into something fun and positive. "By creating a competing emotion," she says, "you help burn out the anxiety." Be creative, says Chansky: Go into the dark and read a book by flashlight. Make five goofy faces, and get out right away. Play 20 questions. This all gets your child into a different frame of mind. Practice often, for the best results.

Dogs are another big fear for preschoolers, says Chansky. Dogs are often big, loud jumpers -- not a good combination for small ones.

Again, Chansky suggests approaching the fear in steps. Resist the temptation either to overprotect or to prompt with, "It's fine, come on!" says Chansky. Instead, give your child opportunities for direct, safe experiences. Talk to a dog's owner and ask, "Is the dog friendly? Can we say 'hi'?" suggests Chansky. "Or, ask your child, 'Is the dog's tail wagging? That's the sign of a happy dog.'" If you have a friend with a dog, let the "sleeping dog lie" -- and let your child observe. That allows a safe entrée to the world of dogs.

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