We all experience fear and anxiety at some point in our lives. Children are experiencing the world for the first time as they grow. It can seem a little overwhelming and scary at times. They also have active imaginations and are more aware of what’s going on in the world around them than we realize sometimes.
Children see the stories in the news. They hear what adults are talking about. Yet children can’t sort out what is really a threat. They need help from parents and other caring adults to cope with their fears. It is important to recognize when children are upset and to talk with them about their fears. It’s also important to know when your child’s fears are common or could be a sign of a more serious issue.
Path to Improved Well Being
Children’s fears may change as they age and have more life experiences. They may be scared of cats after seeing one scratch a sibling. They may be terrified that someone is going to break into their house after seeing a home security commercial on TV. They may have a friend who is scared of thunderstorms and decide they’re scared of them as well.
Many childhood fears are common, including:
- The dark. Sometimes what we can’t see can be scary—not to mention shadows.
- Strangers and “bad guys.” Especially in today’s world, children may hear stories that make them fear that people they meet are out to harm them.
- Fantasies. It’s hard for children to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s fantasy sometimes. They may not understand that the creature from their favorite book can’t actually come to life.
- Loud noises. The vacuum, fireworks, thunder, and even a flushing toilet can cause a startle and seem scary.
- Being and/or sleeping alone.
- Doctors and/or dentists. The lights, instruments, and equipment in a medical or dental office may seem scary. Maybe your child remembers feeling pain while getting shots.
- Animals and insects. Children could be afraid of cats and dogs or snakes and spiders.
- Death. Children could be afraid a loved one or pet may die. Or they may be afraid of their own death.
- Social issues. As your child ages, he or she may increasingly fear rejection and failure at school and in activities.
Your child may be experiencing fear and anxiety but may not know how to tell you about it. Here are a few things to look for that might mean your child is fearful:
- Loss of interest in normal activities
- Change in appetite or sleep habits
- Waking in the middle of the night and/or having nightmares
- Return to earlier habits such as bed-wetting, thumb sucking, or difficulty sharing with other children
- Unwillingness to leave parents or caretakers
- Throwing tantrums
- Physical reactions (sweating, rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing)
How can I help my child deal with his or her fears?
Take your child’s fears seriously. Even if they seem silly to you, they are very real to your child. Create a safe environment for your child at home where it is okay to ask questions. Listen carefully to what your child says. Give him or her honest answers.
The amount and type of information you give your child depends on many things. This includes your child’s age, past experiences, and stage of development. Begin with basic facts and then ask questions to check your child’s understanding. Remember that graphic details are not necessary.
Make it clear to your child that he or she is safe. Keep daily activities as close to normal as possible. Monitor your child’s TV and internet habits. You may want to watch TV together and talk about what you see. Be a good example. Show or tell your child how you conquered a fear.
Help your child take charge of his or her fears by exposing and educating your child about their fears. If your child is scared of thunderstorms, take him or her outside (with an umbrella) during a storm. Read a book about what really happens when there’s thunder and lightning during storms. Give your child a flashlight to look under the bed and in the closets to prove there are no “monsters” before going to bed.
Things to Consider
Many childhood fears are normal. Most children outgrow them. However, if your child is experiencing excessive anxiety or fear that is affecting their daily life at home or school, he or she may need more help to deal with fears. Your child may need further treatment or therapy for anxiety. Also, take your child seriously if he or she seems unusually scared of a person or situation. There may be a problem going on that you’re not aware of. Talk to your family doctor if you feel that your child needs help dealing with fears and anxiety. They can help you come up with a treatment plan and may refer you for therapy or counseling.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor
- How do I know when my child’s fears are normal for his or her age?
- Is therapy the best treatment to help my child conquer their fears?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.