“Men fear death as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear in children is increased by tales, so is the other.” –Francis Bacon
Young and old, child or adult, fear is one of our constant companions in life, and we should be glad that it is. Our brains are hard-wired to notice signs of danger and to alert us to take protective action. A certain amount of anxiety can actually enhance performance in stressful situations. Certain fears go hand in hand with childhood. Others don’t.
Key #1: Know what is normal given your child’s age.
There are a lot of fears that are part of the normal process of development. Most come and eventually go away on their own as kids get older. For example, babies startle at loud noises and are afraid of large unfamiliar objects. At around six months, your formerly easy-going baby will suddenly be afraid of strangers–which can unfortunately include grandparents if they don’t see them much.
Stranger anxiety often peaks, then will seem to disappear, only to reappear again and again over the course of the next year. Separation anxiety is another normal developmental milestone that can appear suddenly at around eight months.
It is a good sign that your baby is smart enough to realize that his or her survival depends on you, which is why the baby screams like crazy when you try to leave them with a babysitter. Although stressful for parents, babies naturally move through this stage by having the painful experience–and the reassurance of you and other caregiving adults–of how you come and go and come back again.
Practice and repetition is how we learn to confront our fears. Preschool kids, aged 3 to 6, are typically afraid of the dark and often worry about monsters, ghosts or wild animals. They hear noises in the night and want to sleep near or with their parents to feel safe and protected from these imaginary beasts.
As kids get older, they typically develop more realistic fears such as anxiety about being sick or injured, or the fear of their own death or the death of a parent. They also start to get anxieties about school performance or peer relationships. They often develop fears about whatever natural disasters plague your part of the country (such as earthquakes, tornadoes, floods) or the current stresses of family or neighborhood (such as threats of poverty, violence, or prejudice).
Key #2: The severity of your child’s response will vary depending on that child’s temperament and way of handling new situations.
Temperament is, by definition, the part of a child’s personality that is not caused by good or bad parenting. We now know that infants are born with certain built-in traits that affect their style of interacting with people, places and things throughout their lifetime.
This validates what many parents knew intuitively all along. Not all babies respond the same, and some are inherently more fearful than others.
It is important to know that how quickly and how intensely your child reacts to new people, places and activities and how adaptable your child is in the face of change is a built-in biological factor that neither you nor your child can control. If you have a sensitive baby, you will need to learn to approach new activities and challenges gently, calmly and consistently even more so than other parents.
Key #3: All babies, toddlers, children and teens typically have more fears than adults. They are simply more vulnerable.
Given the wide range of tasks children must learn to master throughout their childhood, it is no wonder that they typically have more fears and phobias than the adults around them. It is important for parents to make sure that their kids begin to learn, as early as possible, some skills for coping more efficiently with their anxious feelings so that their fear does not begin to interfere with their ability to function.
Children also can develop fears from a traumatic experience such as an automobile accident, the serious illness of a family member, or a confrontation with an aggressive animal. Depending on the child’s age, they may not be able to understand why or how the trauma occurred so the experience just leaves the child feeling scared and vulnerable.
Other kids become fearful for no obvious reason. Some children become fearful simply by watching another child or one of their parent’s acting scared. Sometimes kids’ fears can be traced to something on the news or can emerge after seeing a movie that sparks their anxiety.
Many films today–even those supposedly intended for children–are loaded with images that are aggressive and frightening depending on the child’s age and sensitivity.
Key #4: Some children will go on to develop serious fears and phobias that could get in the way of normal development if untreated.
A small percentage of children (studies estimate 5-10%) will go on to have phobias that will seriously impact their lives causing them not only significant personal distress, but making it difficult for them to remain involved in day-to-day activities of life.
We also know that childhood phobias, left untreated, can predict the presence of phobias in adulthood. If you are worried about a fear or phobia that is getting in the way of your child going to school or eating or sleeping enough, or if the phobia has persisted over time, talk to your pediatrician or get your child assessed by your local clinic or counseling center. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.