Common fears in the toddler years
Terrible monsters lurking in the dark. Echoing thunder spelling their doom. The swirling abyss of a flushed toilet. Toddlers have some fears that might seem silly to adults, but they make a lot of sense from their perspective.
The best way to approach a fear that seems irrational is to place yourself in the mindset of a toddler. Ask lots of questions, and try not to belittle what is a very real emotion. There are a number of common fears that have practical explanations.
Fear or phobia?
When talking about fears, you’ll want to start to figure out whether Baby is just feeling afraid of something, or whether they have developed a phobia.
In simple terms, a phobia is something that you’re afraid of even when it isn’t around. If Baby sees a dog and gets scared, that’s a fear. If Baby acts the same way if you talk about dogs, mention a dog being somewhere you’re going, or when they see a picture of a dog, that’s a phobia.
Fears can often be overcome with a little coaxing and reassurance. If Baby is willing, you can help them face their fear little by little, and they will probably be able to overcome it before too long. On the other hand, trying to get a toddler to face a phobia head-on can, in some cases, make it worse. Phobias can last a long time, sometimes into adulthood, and should be approached with care and understanding.
Common fears to be aware of
- Monsters in the dark: It’s sometimes said that fear of the dark is fear of the unknown. Baby has a powerful imagination, and their mind will use it to explain every moving shadow or strange sound. If this is where Baby’s fear lies, you can work with them to try to redirect some of that imaginative energy somewhere a little more hopeful. Can they imagine positive things instead?
- Being alone or separated from you: This fear typically happens at night as well, and shouldn’t be confused with the tears that can come from leaving Baby with a sitter. Usually, a toddler experiences fear of separation when they still need reassurance that someone will come if they call. You can work with them on getting past this fear by reminding them – either in words or by leaving the door to their room open to let the light and sound of you going on with your night make its way back to them, that you’ll still be near them all night, even if you’re out of sight.
- Bugs: Many fears come from copying how you act. If you show fear or disgust around bugs Baby likely will too. Also, some bugs are terrifying and gross all on their own, so there’s that…
- Strangers or relatives: Relatives who Baby hasn’t spent that much time with can expect an amount of intimacy from them that they may not be ready for. Their suspicion is a natural part of their development, and isn’t there to hurt anybody’s feelings, but relatives who try to force a connection that isn’t there yet can occasionally end up scaring timid babies and toddlers for real. Generally, letting relationships develop on your toddler’s time, with you nearby to provide reassurance, can help get Baby past this phase fairly quickly.
- Masks, costumes, clowns: At Baby’s age, it can still be difficult to tell what’s real and not. Like monsters under the bed, even if Baby knows something isn’t real, their imagination might get away from them. Your comfort around these “creatures” can help. In some cases, showing them the “trick” of seeing who’s under the costume can be helpful, too.
- Toilets: Stuff goes in and it doesn’t come out! A fear of toilets may come from a fear of falling in, or disgust at what goes into a toilet. For potty training toddlers, a “fear” of the toilet could also be an expression of anxiety over the pressure that comes from trying to use it right.
- Doctors: You go to the doctor when you’re sick or in pain, and you get poked with needles and forced to take gross medicine. Your toddler may have already started to associate these uncomfortable sensations with their doctor. You can help combat this association by focusing on the positive feelings that come from eventually feeling better after going to the doctor, and Baby’s doctor’s positive bedside manner.
- Loud noises: A loud noise can be startling. It also feels like you’re being surrounded by the sound, and there’s nothing you can to do turn it off. Whether it’s a vacuum or thunder outside, loud sounds can make toddlers feel powerless and vulnerable. This is a great opportunity to teach about bravery and self-soothing by coaching and modeling behavior.
Fears come and go during all parts of people’s lives, but in the toddler years, they can feel especially strong and hard for adults to understand. Part of this is related to the fact that toddlers are still adjusting to the feeling of their own strong emotions, and another part is related to the fact that toddlers are still forming their understanding of the world, which can lead them to jump to conclusions they’re afraid of, that aren’t always based in reality. As your toddler grows, their fears will come and go and evolve with them, and the things they fear today may seem totally harmless to them tomorrow.
- Cathy Frank. “What is the Difference Between Anxiety and a Phobia?” ABC News. American Broadcasting Company, April 15 2008. abcnews.go.com/Health/AnxietyOverview/story?id=4659885. Retrieved on May 12 2017.
- D’Arcy Lyness. “Anxiety, Fears, and Phobias.” KidsHealth. The Nemours Foundation, July 2013. kidshealth.org/en/parents/anxiety.html#. Retrieved on May 12 2017.
- “Understanding Childhood Fears and Anxieties.” HealthyChildren. American Academy of Pediatrics, June 1 2007. www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/emotional-problems/Pages/Understanding-Childhood-Fears-and-Anxieties.aspx. Retrieved on May 12 2017.