Nobody likes to feel afraid, but for toddlers the world can be a very scary place. Growing up and developing more independence can be worrying and exhilarating all at the same time...
The birth of fears and phobias
At around the age of one, many children develop fears of particular things. Most children are confidently mobile by this stage and have therefore gained a much greater freedom than they have had previously.
These fears probably correspond to their awareness of this freedom. Toddlers can also learn fears from their parents very easily. If your child witnesses you running away from a pigeon, it demonstrates that pigeons are to be feared. It can be hard not to pass on our own phobias, but it is important to try.
A phobia is different to a fear. If your child is frightened of fireworks, she might cry when she hears one and need comforting. A phobia is a fear that plays on a child's mind even when the scary thing is not visible.
So a child with a phobia of fireworks might be scared when she thinks about fireworks, or sees something that reminds her of them, and she may be nervous to leave the house after dark in case there are flashes and bangs. Phobias are quite common in toddlers though as well as fears, and they are usually nothing to worry about.
As a parent you are probably familiar with some common fears already.
Children are often scared of loud everyday household items.
The blender, the vacuum cleaner, or the electric whisk perhaps.
Unexpected and sudden, these strange sounds are sometimes quickly joined by another loud noise - your toddler crying!
Young kids don't understand how everything around them works yet and they don't know that loud noises aren't dangerous to them.
A fear of the hoover, for example, can sometimes be cured by letting junior play with the machine while it is switched off; letting him press the buttons by himself and practising hoovering with your help.
Once he is happy with that, he could move on to being held by daddy while mummy turns it on and off.
A slow, gentle reintroduction to whatever gave him a fright can often easily dispel the fear.
There's something under the bed!
Fear of the dark is another very common problem, it also exists in some adults!
It's quite normal to be a little bit concerned about what you can't see when the lights are turned off, but with toddlers, the problem is that their imagination is growing all the time. And as a young child's imagination grows, this natural and mild fear of the dark grows too and it can become very upsetting.
If your toddler has the occasional nightmare, and doesn't really like being left alone at bedtimes either, it can all add up to a very unhappy, unrested child!
The best way to deal with this one is probably just to buy a little night light, or stick some glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling! Most children simply grow out of this fear in time.
Don't leave me!
Some people believe that fear of the dark is really just another sign of separation anxiety.
Suffering from separation anxiety is a natural phase that may last for weeks in one child but months in another.
Separation anxiety can appear anytime from eight or nine months and might last right up to the age of three.
It can be hard to remember that it's a perfectly normal stage for your child to go through when you have a podgy hand gripping your trouser leg every hour that she's awake and the sound "Mummy-mummy-mummy" accompanying your every action!
Tips to ease separation anxiety include always saying goodbye when you leave her, always smiling as you say goodbye, and playing hide and seek.
Soon, hopefully, she will understand that you come back every time you leave.
Strange creatures, like reptiles or insects, are another thing that children are typically frightened of.
Reptiles are easy to avoid in everyday life, but insects are not!
A bite or a sting might trigger a fear or phobia of insects, or your child may just not like the way they look or move.
As a child becomes more familiar with insects and realises that they are mostly harmless, the fear should naturally disappear.
A book about insects could also help - they are interesting creatures really! Some children with fears do become a bit obsessed with whatever is scaring them.
They may want to talk to you about spiders every day and play games with spiders as they work through their fear.
If this fear becomes more of a phobia, it's likely that such a book would be rejected, and your child may not even want to go into the garden because of insects that could be lurking outside.
Phobias that affect your child's life like this may require advice from your GP.
I don't like it!
Your toddler might be scared of other more furry and cute animals too!
Some fears are harder for us adults to understand - we can easily comprehend a fear of a big strange dog running towards the pram, but not of next door's pet rabbit.
It is always important that a child's fears aren't mocked.
If the baby animals on the farm cause tears today and your toddler really really does not want to go and stroke the pretty lamb with his big sister, you must respect that for now and not force him to interact against his will.
Pushing a scared toddler into doing something they don't want to could make a fear worse, and more permanent.
Don't forget that compared to a toddler, that lamb is much bigger than when compared to you!
Someone needs a cuddle!
The best way to manage your child's fears or phobias is to accept them and acknowledge her feelings.
Don't get frustrated or annoyed if you think a fear is irrational or silly.
Remember that fear is a strong emotion that can be difficult to control.
It's best to let your child know that you are letting her stay away from whatever scares her, but that you are not afraid.
She doesn't like the water going down the plug hole after her bath, so lift her out before you let the water out.
Tell her that you know it isn't nice to be scared.
You will probably need to be patient and explain that the plug hole is safe more than a few times before she will believe you.
Toddlers usually don't comprehend sizes very well yet and looking at the hole, she's not sure about whether she could fit down there!
On a good day, if she is happy to try it out, you could let her watch the water drain while her doll sits in the bath.
This might show her that there is nothing to worry about.
Is she ready yet?
Many psychologists believe that we are born with a few basic emotions.
Fear is thought to be one of these innate emotions.
Fear is helpful to humans because it protects us from accidents by encouraging us to avoid danger.
Many toddler fears are sensibly there for self-preservation.
A toddler frightened of the slide at the park, for example, might not be ready to climb up and get back down safely alone, so the height is a worry.
Try the playground again in a few weeks when mobility has improved, and the concerns might have disappeared.
In the meantime, you can simply stick to the swings or the roundabout instead!
Take it away!
Certain fears are harder to get rid of because they are more sensible in an evolutionary sense.
These fears, like fear of heights or fear of water, are more common in the population than fears of things that cannot really harm us, like fear of trees or fish.
Treatment for adult phobia sufferers are more successful in those scared of dogs than those scared of snakes. Dogs are usually quite friendly creatures. Snakes are not friendly, and can kill.
It is easier to un-teach a fear of dogs than a fear of snakes because it is a less rational fear.
Too much too soon?
Toddlers go through so many changes and learn so many new things every day it can be overwhelming.
Perhaps he has been learning how to twist the lids off jars, and how to hop on one leg, and how to sing 'Twinkle twinkle little star', and how to use the potty all in one week... Phew! It's no wonder that occasionally it might get a bit too much for him.
These are the times when general anxiety might increase, and specific fears and phobias can become apparent.
Encourage independence without pushing your child too much and hopefully these fears will be a temporary thing.
Having fears doesn't make your toddler a big baby, they are natural! Learning to cope with his fears in his own time will help to make him a big brave boy.
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