Understanding Children: Fears

Lesia Oesterreich, M.S.
Family Life Extension Specialist
Human Development and Family Studies
Iowa State University

Copyright/Access Information

To many parents, children's fears make no sense at all. Nevertheless,
to children, monsters lurking in the dark or scary noises coming
from the attic are quite real. Around your child's second birthday,
he or she may become frightened by things that did not cause fear
before-the neighbor's dog, the dark, the bathtub drain, and loud

Several factors contribute to a child developing fears by age
2. Children between the ages of 2 and 6 have experienced real
fear or pain from being lost, injured, or bitten. They also have
vivid imaginations and struggle with the idea of cause and effect.

A toddler knows something about size and shape, but not enough
to be sure that he or she won't be sucked down into the bathtub
drain or into a flushing toilet. Older children also are aware
of dangers that they hear about or see on TV. It's hard to know
what is real and what is not.

Common fears

Fear of separation

Toddlers' anxiety about separation is an indication of growth.
Before your toddler turned 2, he or she forgot you after you left,
and settled down quickly. Now your child worries about and puzzles
over your departure. Always tell your child that you are leaving.
Sneaking out decreases trust. It may help to get your child absorbed
in an activity before you leave. An elaborate ritual of waving
bye-bye and blowing good-bye kisses also may help.

Preschoolers are more self-assured than toddlers, but occasionally
experience fears about being separated from a parent when starting
a new school or child care arrangement, staying overnight with
a relative, or moving to a new home. Ease into new situations
gradually. Visiting the new school several times before the first
day, or staying with your child for the first day or two can make
a big difference.

Fear of baths

Many young children worry about going down the drain with the
water. No amount of logical talk will change this. Avoid letting
the water drain out while your child is still in the tub or even
in the bathroom. If your child seems fearful of water, you might
try letting him or her play first with a pan of water, then in
the sink, and finally over the edge of the tub (don't leave a
child alone in the bathroom).

Fear of dogs

Dogs are often loud, fast moving, and unpredictable. Many children
fear them. Respect your child's fear of strange dogs; a child's
instincts may be right. If you wish to introduce your child to
a friendly dog, first try sharing pictures of the dog with your
child. Next watch the dog from a distance, and finally approach
the dog together. You may want to demonstrate how to pet the dog,
but don't force your child to pet the dog, too. If he or she refuses,
you can try again later.

Fear of loud noises

Although your toddler loves to pound on a toy drum, the loud
noise from a vacuum cleaner or a hair dryer may be very frightening.
Even preschoolers can develop fear of loud noises. Try letting
your child look at and eventually touch things in your home before
you turn them on. If the fear seems intense, save “loud noise
jobs” for times when your child is rested and in a good mood,
or better yet, when he or she is not around.

Fear of the dark

Parents often sheepishly admit that their child sleeps with
a night light (or the room light) on. Children can sleep with
lights on without damaging their health. Many children sleep with
a night light well into the school-age years.

Fear of the dark is usually one of the last childhood fears
to be conquered. Younger children fear monsters and snakes that
lurk in the bedroom shadows. Older children may fear burglars
and thieves. It is not at all uncom-mon for children who are 10
and 11 to still use a night light.

A gradual reduction of light works for many families, while
some children decide on their own to turn lights off. It is important
not to rush your child.

School-age children have fears too

During the school-age years, imaginary monsters disappear,
but other fears begin to surface. School-age children often have
to deal with bullies, the fear of rejection or embarrassment,
and sometimes the reality of being home alone after school. School-agers
also are aware of TV and news events that show-case murder, drug
abuse, kidnappings, and burglaries.

About one-third of school-age children experience fears that
re-occur. Often these children develop strategies that help them
cope. One common strategy children use is to turn the TV on when
they arrive home so they don't hear scary noises. Other strategies
include hiding under beds or in closets, turning all the lights
on in the house, and using the phone for comfort and companionship.

Older kids often feel embarrassed about feeling afraid and
are reluctant to share their feelings. Asking specific questions
like “Do you have a special hiding place? Do you walk home
a certain way? When you come home do you check the doors?”
will help parents identify concerns that their children might
have. A very elaborate plan for self protection may indicate that
the child is feeling threatened and very afraid.

How parents can help

Your child's fears depend on his or her level of anxiety, past
experience, and imagination. If any fears persist, give your child
more time and try to avoid events and situations that can trigger
them. Your child may be better equipped emotionally to deal with
his or her fears in a few months.

  • Avoid lectures. It is not helpful to ridicule, coerce, ignore,
    or use logic. Think back to your own childhood. How often did
    you hear phrases like: “There is no such thing as a monster,”
    “Don't be such a baby,” “There are no lions or
    bears for miles and miles from here,” or “Pet the nice
    doggie, he won't hurt you.” Did statements such as these
    really make you feel any better?
  • Accept your child's fears as valid. Support your child any
    time he or she is frightened. Use a matter- of-fact attitude
    and some reassuring words. It's OK to explain that monsters don't
    really live under the bed, but don't expect your child to believe
  • Remember that some fear is good. Children should have a healthy
    sense of caution. Strange dogs and strange people can be dangerous.
    As children grow older, they begin to have a better understanding
    of cause and effect, and reality versus fantasy. They also may
    gain some first-hand experience with the object of their fear
    and discover ways to control potentially dangerous situations.
    Eventually, most fears will be overcome or at least brought under
  • Show your child how to cope. Young children can learn some
    coping skills that will help them feel like they have more control
    of their fear. Learning how to take deep breaths, using their
    imagination to turn a scary monster into a funny monster, or
    keeping a flashlight by the bed after lights are turned off are
    all good examples of coping skills. Reading children's books
    about scary situations such as going to bed in the dark or having
    an operation in the hospital also can be helpful.
  • It is best not to force a child into fearful situations all
    at once. Often the “shock” method will backfire and
    intensify the fear. A small dose at a time is the best way to
    help a child over-come fear.

A note about nightmares and night terrors

One out of every four children between the ages of 3 and 8
experiences either night terrors or night-mares. Both
of these situations can be unnerving, but are generally short-lived.

Night terrors generally occur within an hour
of falling asleep. The child awakens suddenly from a state of
deep sleep in a state of panic. He or she may scream, sit up in
bed, breathe quickly, and stare “glassy eyed.” The child
also may seem confused, disoriented, and incoherent. Each episode
can last from 5 to 30 minutes. A child who experiences night terrors
is not aware of any scary thoughts or dreams and is usually able
to go back to sleep quickly. In the morning, he or she usually
doesn't remember waking at all. Night terrors may occur for several
years. Generally they go away with time and are not an indication
of any underlying emotional problems.

Nightmares generally occur in the early morning
hours. Children who experience nightmares can often recall the
vivid details of their scary dream and may have difficulty going
back to sleep. Nightmares will often center around a specific
problem or life event that is troubling the child. Parents can
help by remaining calm. Hold your child close and talk in a soft,
soothing voice. Comfort and reassure your child. If possible,
stay close by until he or she falls asleep. Calm, consistent handling
of nightmares or terrors will help your child feel safe and secure.

Books for children

Are You My Mother? P. Eastman

How Many Kisses Goodnight? Jean Monrad

The Runaway Bunny, Margaret Wise Brown

Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown

Bedtime for Francis, Lilian Hoban

Ira Sleeps Over, Bernard Waler


National Network for Child Care – NNCC. Part of CYFERNET, the
National Extension Service Children Youth and Family Educational
Research Network. Permission is granted to reproduce these materials
in whole or in part for educational purposes only(not for profit
beyond the cost of reproduction) provided that the author and
Network receive acknowledgment and this notice is included:

Reprinted with permission from National Network for Child Care
Oesterreich, L. (1993). Understanding children: Fears. Ames, IA:
Iowa State University Extension.

Any additions or changes to these materials must be preapproved
by the author.

Extension Distribution Center
119 Printing and Publications Bldg.
Iowa State University
Ames, IA 50011
PHONE:: (515) 294-5247
FAX:: (515) 294-2945
E-MAIL:: pubdist@iastate.edu

Lesia Oesterreich
1086 Lebaron Hall
Iowa State University
Ames, IA 50011
PHONE:: (515) 294-0363
FAX:: (515) 294-5507
E-MAIL:: loesterr@iastate.edu


FORMAT AVAILABLE:: Print – 4 pages
Level 2 -Iowa State University Extension
DOCUMENT SIZE:: 37K or 5 pages
ENTRY DATE:: August 1998




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