Want to hear something scary? The boogeyman is very real…for toddlers, at least.
Toddlers’ fears are sometimes downplayed by parents because they’re not logical fears. For toddlers, though, the fears are as real as they feel. A toddler’s imagination is so vivid that the images in her head can cause a very real physical reaction.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, a baby’s fear peaks during the eighth month of her life – which is the height of their “stranger anxiety” period – until the toddler years, when new fears can start to appear.
Fear isn’t fun to deal with, but it’s actually a normal and healthy developmental trait. In fact, eventually, it helps toddlers learn to avoid danger. When fear is first developing, though, it can lead to fears that don’t always make sense. Understanding what common toddler fears are can help parents and caregivers figure out how to guide toddlers past fears of things that aren’t dangerous.
For a lot of toddlers, the fear of being separated from their parents is heightened because their imaginations can get in the way of their trust in the fact that their parents or caregivers really will come back.
If Baby has been afraid about separation lately, you can help prepare her for partings ahead of time by telling her about the fun things she’s going to get to do while you’re apart – sometimes starting as early as days before a planned separation, like the first day of preschool, happens. Since toddlers can’t fully grasp the idea of time or distance, talking about specific endings, like “I will wait for you at your Aunt’s house, which is just three minutes away,” or, “I’ll see you again in three hours,” isn’t as helpful or reassuring as you might want it to be. Instead, reassurances that use the landmarks of her day, like “I will pick you up after you eat lunch,” and promises to meet her at the exact spot where you dropped her off, so she can picture it, can be more helpful.
Seeing monsters inside the closet, under the bed, or in the bathroom are all common during the toddler years. Again, this fear happens because of toddlers’ powerful imaginations, which can make fears and fantasies feel very real. Your toddler’s fears may not be based in reality, but in her mind, they’re as real as any risk you’ve ever taken.
Getting up in the middle of the night again and again and again isn’t any fun for you or your partner. Believe it or not, Baby isn’t enjoying it much, either. Reassuring her each time she wakes up afraid is the best way to build her confidence, and get you both back to sleep as quickly and as peacefully as possible.
Another way to help your toddler get past her fears is simply to keep her away from the things she is afraid of. If there’s a toy or picture on her room that scares her, there’s no reason it has to stay in her room. If she is afraid of the dark, a night light can keep her from staying anywhere too dim. As she grows, Baby will have plenty of chances to face her fears. Right now, when she is still working on her understanding of reality, there’s no harm in just avoiding being scared whenever she can.
Do you know why toddlers become hysterical when they scrape their elbows or get their fingers pricked? Well, aside from the pain, of course. It’s because they don’t fully understand how their bodies work.
When reassuring toddlers who aren’t sure where a scraped knee is going to lead, a matter-of-fact approach is key. If Baby is especially scared or injured, you can carefully explain to her what the injury or procedure is, and how her body will heal after. For more minor bumps and bruises, a quick and cheerful band-aid or kiss-it-better before sending her back out to play will reassure her, through just your reaction, that there isn’t anything to worry about.
Fears are normal, and generally nothing to worry about at this age, but fears that get channeled into physical reactions, like a headache, fatigue, or tummy ache, are worth checking in with Baby’s pediatrician about.
- Jacques Benun, Carol Lewis, Matthew Siegel. “Fears and Phobias.” Pediatrics. 29(7). July 2008. Retrieved July 5 2017. http://pedsinreview.aappublications.org/content/29/7/250?sso=1&sso_redirect_count=1&nfstatus=401&nftoken=00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000000&nfstatusdescription=ERROR%3a+No+local+token.
- “Anxiety and Children.” American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. American Academy of child and Adolescent Psychology, October 2013. No. 47. Retrieved July 5 2017. http://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/The-Anxious-Child-047.aspx.