Childhood Fears and Anxieties

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

From the WebMD Archives

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.

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.

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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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Through her research, Lagattuta has learned that children as young as 3 or 4 may know that anticipating the future can cause worry.

"They understand that negative thoughts can make you feel bad before they understand that positive thoughts can help you feel good, which happens around age 7," she says. Despite this awareness, young preschoolers lack the attentive powers to redirect their thoughts, which may explain why trying to talk your young child out of her fears is unproductive. With her own 4-year-old, Lagattuta used a more tangible aid -- having her child draw pictures in a "happy journal," to which she added words as she got older.

Easing Fears in School-Aged Children

An explosion of knowledge and experience during the school years introduces children to more real-world dangers: fire drills, burglars, storms, and wars. Realism begins to set in.

Don't always assume you know the precise source of your child's fears, however. If your child shuns public pools, is it really the water and drowning she's afraid of? Or, is it the lifeguard's whistle? The only way to know is to ask.

With younger children, you can draw them out -- literally. Have them draw two pictures: One is a picture of themselves in the scary situation with a thought "worry bubble" that tells what they're thinking about themselves. Then have them draw a second picture of themselves in the same situation, but with a "smart bubble" that has calmer, more realistic thoughts.

A child who's afraid of a teacher's rejection might say, "The teacher will send me to the principal if I forget my homework." But the "smart bubble" might say, "My friend, Alex, did forget his homework and the teacher only asked him to write himself a reminder."

This technique helps kids make the connection between how they feel when they're telling themselves these two very different stories, says Chansky.

Children who are afraid of natural disasters might also shift into a different mindset by teaching their parents what they've learned at school about storms, tornadoes, or earthquakes. This helps them solidify a different way of looking at the situation.

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Chanksy explains that these techniques work well for children who are more cognitively oriented. For kids who are physically tense, worry a lot at night, and have trouble sleeping, relaxation techniques may be just the ticket.

Lori Lite, a certified children's meditation facilitator, discovered the merits firsthand with her own children. One child was hyperactive and chronically ill. And another was experiencing stress-related night terrors. By developing her own stories that incorporated deep-breathing, affirmations, and muscular relaxation, she was able to greatly help her own children. Today, she creates and distributes products like these, through her web site, LiteBooks.net.

"The benefit is that you don't have to go to a class. You don't have to have a degree. You don't have to have a lot of money," says Lite. "All you need to do is turn on a CD or read a book."

General Guidelines for Any Age

When your child is afraid -- whether at age 5 or 15 -- remember to approach the fears with respect. Chansky suggests following these basic guidelines:

  • Don't try to talk your child out of being afraid.
  • Stay calm and confident. How you talk to your child about fears is as important as what you say.
  • When helping your child to confront fears, find out what feels comfortable. Don't force your child to do more than that. However, don't give your child a total "out." Complete avoidance isn't the answer for anxiety.
  • Practice coping responses in a variety of ways: with drawing, stuffed animals, or role-playing.
  • Reward efforts -- big or small.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by John M Goldenring, MD, JD, MPH on /2, 07

Sources

SOURCES: Tamar E. Chansky, PhD, director, Children's Center for OCD and Anxiety, Plymouth Meeting, Pa.; author, Freeing Your Child from Anxiety. Purdue University: "Children's Age-Related Fears" and "Ways to Help Children Cope with Their Fears." Foxman, P. The Worried Child: Recognizing Anxiety in Children and Helping Them Heal, Hunter House, 2004. Kristin Lagattuta, assistant professor, department of psychology, University of California, Davis. Lifespan: "'Mommy, I'm Scared': Understanding Children's Fears." Lori Lite, certified children's meditation facilitator.

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