Children are afraid of an amazing array of things. The fear of thunder, the dark, mud, water, monsters and even lightning bugs can be a natural and valuable response to a variety of situations. As unreasonable and frustrating as these fears may seem to you, they’re real to your child. Early fears focus on basic self-protection. As children grow older, their fears may change, such as developing a fear of death.
The successful resolution of a fear is a sign of developmental maturity. Parents can help children resolve their fears by listening and providing support and comfort. It’s important to be patient. Never react to a child’s fears with teasing or shame.
As a parent, your job is to help your child find positive ways to face his fears. But remember, not all strategies work with all kids. An approach that works today may fail tomorrow. But by understanding how fears change as children grow, you can tailor your help to your child’s level of understanding.
COMMON CHILDHOOD FEARS
Infants and young children tend to be afraid of loud sounds and separation from their primary caregiver, such as mom. Infants up to 18 months also may be frightened by bright lights and sudden movements. The fear of strangers begins at about 7 months of age. Fear of the dark, water and “monsters” appears in toddlers, who also may be afraid of certain people, situations, objects or animals. Preschoolers may add fear of death to the mix.
As they enter school, children’s fears change. They may be afraid of failing at school, having problems with their friends, encountering unpleasant situations, danger to them or their loved ones and death. (See “Helping Kids Deal With Death I” and “Helping Kids Deal With Death II.”)
Some fears come from unpleasant early experiences. For example, the child who flounders for a moment in a baby pool may fear swimming throughout childhood. Fears also may rub off from other family members, or they can simply be the product of an active imagination.
HELPING YOUR CHILD OVERCOME FEARS
WHEN TO CALL THE DOCTOR
Pediatricians say there are two situations involving fears that are potentially dangerous for parents to handle on their own.
Among school-age children, some risk-taking behavior in an attempt to conquer fears is normal. However, a preoccupation with challenging danger indicates a more serious underlying problem, and it can be life-threatening!
In both cases, seek professional help for your child. Fears that prevent a child from engaging in ordinary daily activities may require evaluation and intervention by a mental health professional. In some cases, an ordinary fear becomes a phobia, a persistent problem that requires additional help.
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