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Is It "Normal" for Children to Be Afraid?

We can't eliminate all fears, and some fear may serve a useful purpose, such as fear of cars on a busy street. However, we do need to help children understand their feelings of fear. Studies show that fears appear and disappear in an ordered, patterned fashion that is similar from child to child. Each new developmental stage brings its own characteristic fears. As children age, the situations they fear change as well. Younger children typically fear loud noises, strangers, and unfamiliar objects. These fears give way to others, as children begin to develop the ability to understand their environment and become more confident in their ability to deal with it. Fear of death, the dark, ridicule, robbers, and "monsters" are typical for children from 3-6 years of age.

How Can I Help My Child Cope with His Fears?

  • Don't laugh at children's fears. Ridiculing fears does not decrease the fear, and only diminishes the child's confidence. Statements such as "Don't be a sissy--big kids aren't afraid of the dark" only shame children and discourage them from sharing their feelings and experiences.
  • Don't ignore children's fears. Telling your child that shots won't hurt makes her feel as though she must deal with her fear all by herself. Give your child the reassurance she needs. She may want you to listen to her account of the fearful happening more than once, and she may ask you to explain it over and over again. All of this helps to make the event less frightening.
  • Don't force children in situations they fear. Trying to overcome a large fear all at once by using shock methods rarely works. Rather, it serves to intensify the fear. Give your child the chance to become used to the fearful situation a little at a time. If he is afraid of large dogs, let him first get acquainted with a small puppy or a gently older dog.
  • Don't lie to children about their fears. Lying to your child about a frightening situation usually produces more fear. Truthfulness and preparing for the feared situation can help your child manage it. For example, before your child goes to the hospital for an operation, take him to the hospital for a tour, read books about hospitals, talk to others who have been to the hospital.
  • Don't transmit personal fears to children. When a parent is afraid of spiders, children sense it. The example you set in managing your own fears gives your child a familiar pattern of response to follow.
  • Accept children's fears as real. Acknowledging "Sometimes darkness can be scary--do you want a flashlight?" lets children know it's permissible to have and to express fears.
  • Let children see other people interact confidently with the situations they fear. Watching another child handle a pet lizard may do more than words to help your child lose his fear of reptiles.

Resource: Center for Early Education and Development, Minneapolis, Minnesota