Are Your Toddler's Fears Normal or an Early Sign of Anxiety?
As we learn and understand more about anxiety disorders, we have come to understand that early warning signs shouldn’t be ignored. Addressing them early helps to prevent problems later. This has some parents worried about their young children and whether sudden and intense fears might be an early sign of an anxiety disorder. In most cases, however, these fears are a normal part of child development and signal cognitive development.
Fears in Very Young Children
There are two main fears that develop in very young children - before the age of two. The first usually develops between 7 and 9 months old. Your child might suddenly be agitated when around unfamiliar people. Stranger anxiety is normal at this age and shows that your child has learned to distinguish between people he knows and people he doesn’t know.
The second fear, separation anxiety, usually develops between 12 and 18 months old. Your child might become upset when you leave, even for a few minutes. He might whine, cling or cry. Once you leave, the child often becomes absorbed in another activity and calms down.
While these fears are normal and signal your child’s cognitive skills are developing appropriately, the suddenness and intenseness of the fears might worry some parents. Thankfully, these fears do not usually last more than a few months. By the time your child is two years old, separation anxiety should diminish.
Fears in Toddlers
During the toddler years, your child becomes fearful of specific things or situations. Some common toddler fears are:
- Thunder and loud noises such as wind
- Being left alone
- Clowns, people in mask or costume
- The toilet flushing or water going down the bathtub drain
- Certain animals (especially large animals)
It isn’t until around 8 that children begin to develop fears about abstract things, such as robbers coming in the house, grades or being liked by classmates. Until that time, fears revolve around specific things or events that are occurring to or around your child.
Should You Seek Help?
When deciding whether you should seek help for your child’s fears, think about whether they are considered typical for your child’s age. If your toddler is afraid of the dark, there probably isn’t anything to be worried about. If your child has developed a fear of thunderstorms, there probably isn’t anything to be worried about. But, if the fear is not typical for your child’s age, for example, your four year old still has an intense fear of strangers, you should talk with your pediatrician.
Thomas Huberty, PhD, from Indiana University, suggests asking yourself the following questions:
- Is the anxiety based on specific situations or more pervasive?
- Has the anxiety developed recently or is it ongoing?
- Are there situations and events in your child’s life that might be contributing to the anxiety?
- Are other factors, such as developmental milestones, affected?
When fears don’t go away, become worse or are causing problems in your child’s development, you should talk with your pediatrician about your concerns. Write down specific examples of the fear and how it impacts your child’s day to day functioning and how long the fear has been present. Your child’s pediatrician needs this information to decide whether further assessment is needed.
Ways to Help Your Child
Toddlers sometimes have trouble telling the difference between make-believe and the real world. Your child’s fear could be based on something he imagined or something he saw in a book or on television and thinks could come true. Even when based on make-believe, your child’s fears are real to him. It is important to acknowledge the fear rather than dismissing it as silly or frivolous. Some other ways to help your child:
Ask questions about their fear. Toddlers often have a hard time expressing themselves based on their limited vocabulary and understanding of emotions. Ask questions, such as “What do you think the monster looks like?” or “What happens in the dark?” These questions help teach your child how to talk about their fears.
Point out different emotions. Ask questions about different emotions your child is experiencing. This places the emphasis on emotions rather than on the fear itself.
Prepare your child in advance. Suppose your toddler has a fear of the water going down the drain in the tub. Instead of letting your child leave the room (which signals that it is something to be feared), state, “I know this is scary for you, but I am going to stand here and hold your hand so we can deal with it together.”
Give your child some control over the situation. You might give your child a blanket or calming object or put a night light in their room at night. Your child’s fears come because he thinks there is something he can’t control. Giving him ways to help calm down and overcome the fear might help.
Explain what is going on. If your child is afraid of a thunderstorm because she thinks monsters are outside, talk about what a thunderstorm is (in ways a toddler can understand.) Or, if your child is afraid of the water going down the drain, explain that the holes are too small for anything but water to go down the drain. Sometimes a rational explanation helps ease your child’s fears.
Expose your child to their fears. Help your child face his fears. Have him help you look under the bed for monsters or stand next to you while the toilet is flushed. Allowing your child to run away from the fear reinforces that this is something to be feared. Instead, use exposure while keeping your child safe. If it is a make-believe fear or something that is hard to confront, look for books or use make-believe games to face fears. This helps teach your child to face their fears.
“Anxiety and Anxiety Disorders in Children: Information for Parents, Date Unknown, Thomas J. Huberty, Ph.D., National Association of School Psychologists
“Frequently Asked Questions: Anxiety in Children,” Date Unknown, Staff Writer, American Academy of CHild Adolescent Psychiatry