Once the lights are out and mom and dad have said goodnight, a child’s bedroom can become a scary place. Ghosts hover inside a three-year-old’s closet. Escaped killers lurk outside an eight-years-old’s window. And a 13-year-old lies horrified certain that everyone in school the next day will laugh at his too short haircut.
Childhood fears are a normal part of growing up. “This doesn’t mean that fears are of no concern,” explains psychologist Rachel Klein. Helping children conquer their fears doesn’t mean shielding them from everything that’s scary. “Kids who are continually rescued by their parents keep their sense of vulnerability and impotence into adulthood,” warns psychologist Sheila Ribordy. “When adversity strikes, they fall apart, because they haven’t developed ways of coping.”
Generally speaking, childhood fears arise in four broad stages.
Toddlers—-First Fears: Two-years-old Sara never seemed fearful of anything—until the day she attended her cousin’s birthday party. There stood the loudest, the scariest clown with a big red nose and a luminous big orange wig. “Sara grabbed me around the neck and held on for dear life,” recalls a mother of my Montessori student.
When the next birthday party came around, Sara refused to go, “No clown, Mama,” Sara cried, her eyes wide with panic. Sara had been frightened by something that overwhelmed her.
By the age of ten months, a child has learned to distinguish the familiar from the unfamiliar. If the unfamiliar is especially big, bright and loud, it will seem scary.
To parents, such a fear might seem nonsensical. But dismissing it will only make a toddler wonder if something is wrong with him. “The idea is to get your child to understand that it’s ok to be afraid, that we all have fears,” says psychologist Stephen Graber. “The most important thing is to work through them.”
Pre-schoolers—Vivid Fantasies: Like many preschoolers one three-year-old was a fan of Barney, a grinning purple dinosaur on TV. Monsters, he believed, were kind and ready for fun. Then he saw a movie commercial featuring a dinosaur that terrorized people. His mother had a big job explaining the difference between them—and making him understand that both are imaginary.
Handling preschoolers’ fear is often a matter of understanding their fantasies. Around the age of three, children develop vivid imaginations, important for early mental development. But at that age, it’s not easy to keep straight what is real and what isn’t.
According to Wanda Draper, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, night time separation is a problem for many preschoolers. “When a child says, ‘I’m scared to go to bed because there are monsters in there,’” Draper explains, “it means, ‘I feel safer when I’m with you.’”
You can help by keeping a matter-of-fact attitude. Play into the fantasy, perhaps by giving your child a flashlight to zap the monsters, to distract him, tell him a story or have him count as high as he can. Or to remind himself he’s safe, instruct him to recite something like “I don’t need to be afraid; my parents are in next room.”
Sometimes it works to give the child a new way to think about the situation.
Primary-Schoolers—Real Life: A terrified six-year-old couldn’t stop thinking about the report on of his classmates had given in school that day: a dangerous killer had escaped from prison and was on the loose. The boy’s parents insisted that there was no killer at large in their neighborhood. Still, that night the child couldn’t sleep. After his third sleepless night, the family went to see Sheila Ribordy. The psychologist asked the boy if he had any ideas for making himself feel better. Without hesitating, the boy suggested that his parents tape a bell on a string to his bedroom window. If anyone tried to break in, he would hear the intruder and have time to run to their room.
Though this boy’s anxiety was intense, it typifies the fears children have during the primary-school years. No longer afraid of imaginary creatures, they feel threatened by real life dangers, such as murders, car accidents, earthquakes and fires.
The trouble is, says Ribordy, “they don’t have the emotional maturity or cognitive ability to keep those dangers in perspective. They think that if there’s a killer out there, he’ll surely come for their family.”
You can help your child develop a stronger sense of control over his own safety. Books on tornadoes and earthquakes, for example, can help explain how infrequently such natural disasters occur.
Parents should also monitor TV viewing. Studies confirm that children who watch a lot of television tend to be exposed to more violence and thus feel more insecure than children who don’t watch as much.
Children are especially prone to develop fears if they sense their parents aren’t getting along. “They are allowing themselves to be scapegoats,” says psychiatrist Joel Feiner. “It’s as if the child were thinking, ‘If I direct attention to myself, then my parents won’t fight with each other.’”
Adolescence—Social Fears: When a 12-year-old girl learned that her mother had bought her a new dress at a store teenagers considered unfashionable, she grew frantic. What if my friends find out?
“Adolescents fear rejection and humiliation,” explains Ribordy, “and they perceive the risk of embarrassing themselves in an exaggerated way. They are embarrassed about their parents’ divorce or about mom’s pregnancy.”
Parents are often at a disadvantage when it comes to helping their children through these difficult social fears, because adolescents may not trust parents’ opinion on what to wear, or how to fit in. Instead, parents should encourage their children to develop friendships.
“Having a best friend with the same worries is how they learn their blemish is not as big as they think it is,” Ribordy says, “that’s how they put their fears into perspective.”
Anxiety often extends into the classroom too. “Secondary school students fear being unable to meet expectations of their parents and their teaches,” says Draper. “One 14-year-old boy I know said, ‘I’ll just kill myself,’ because his parents and teachers expected good grades. He needed permission not to have pleased everybody.”
When it comes to pressure, many parents don’t know their own strength. Teenagers are prone to exaggerate pressures, so even a history of praise for high marks can be translated, in a child’s mind, into extreme expectations. Sometimes adolescents need to be told that they will not be held to a perfect standard.
The best day to day strategy is to communicate clearly. Preserve the home atmosphere where the child feels free to talk to you without being ridiculed. If your child’s fears become so intense that they interfere with daily life or sleep, or lead to sadness and withdrawal, it may be time to seek professional help. Otherwise, their fears are probably normal—and, with your help, eventually will disappear.