Slaying the monster in the closet: Dealing with your toddler’s irrational fears

At 33 months old, Baby is probably more mobile, curious, and aware of their surroundings than they have ever been before. But this growing attentiveness to the world around them also comes with a new set of reactions and emotions, including emerging fears.

It’s a big, scary world out there

Toddlers typically find any type of loud, unexpected noise a little scary – think thunder and lightning, toilets, and doorbells. What else is scary for Baby? They may also get scared of deep, dark spaces like basements or closets, as well as big, unfamiliar animals or objects, from the gorilla at the zoo to a cement mixer hissing and clattering down the road. Toddlers can get scared about unexpected changes in their lives and routines, which is part of why they find regular schedules so comforting.

Evolving fears

Baby’s fears from when they were younger, including separation anxiety and fear of strangers, may have seemed more reasonable than their current fears. More than that, the fears that are common at Baby’s current age are also harder to reassure. Partially, this is because many of these fears (like fear of thunderstorms) are out of your (or anyone’s) control.  

Shining a light on bedtime fears

Many toddlers this age start to get scared when bedtime rolls around. Toddlers dealing with bedtime terrors may think they hear scary noises at the window or think that monsters are hiding in dark corners of the room. Getting toddlers to bed is never easy, but it gets even harder once the soon-to-be-sleeper thinks a two-headed creature is lurking in the closet.

Tools to help toddlers get past their fears

The good news is there are some strategies you can try to help Baby handle, and even move past, their fears.

  • It’s okay if you don’t get it: Even if you know Baby will hear toilets flush for the rest of their life, and that they’re probably never going to hurt them, accept that it’s upsetting now. Let your child know you that you understand something feels scary to them, and don’t make them feel bad about it.
  • Offer comfort, then distraction: If the neighbor’s construction project, or some road work down the block is causing tears, soothing Baby is a great first step, but after offering comfort, try offering up a new activity. “I know that pounding is noisy, but wouldn’t it be fun to make a different sound? Let’s get your music set out.”
  • Transition into bedtime: Toddlers can have trouble with transitions, and that trouble can be helped by having warning, and a schedule they can count on, so bedtime fears may be helped by a reliable, consistent approach to bedtime that eases your toddler into sleep mode and keeps those scary monsters off balance. You can also try dimmer switches that avoid an abrupt shift from light to darkness in the room, or devices that play soothing music while toddlers are falling asleep, before eventually shutting off.
  • Avoid “making it go away”: It’s always tough to watch Baby struggle with fear, and it can be tempting to disconnect the doorbell or avoid going by that noisy bulldozer on your morning walk. But fear can be a great teacher, and this fearful age is just one more milestone that Baby will pass along the way to growing up. Instead of getting rid of the scary-but-harmless things in their world, focusing on reassuring them when they come up will eventually help them move past those fears.

There are plenty of scary things in the world, and as Baby grows, their fears will probably start to reflect more and more of the reasonable dangers in the world around them. For now, though, most of the time, you get to tell them that the thing they are afraid of isn’t going to hurt them.

  • “Cognitive Development: Two-Year-Old.” Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5 American Academy of Pediatrics. 11/21/15.
  • Laura A. Jana, MD, and Jennifer Shu, MD. “The Four B’s of Bedtime.” Food Fights, 2nd Edition American Academy of Pediatrics. 3/26/12.
  • Sacha N. Matthews. “Children’s Fears: Developmental or Disorder? What Educators Should Know.” University of Pittsburgh, School of Education. 2010.
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