Toddler Fears are Normal: Calm Them With Kindness
Whyyyy can’t they install nice, affordable, universally quiet air-based hand dryers in our public restrooms? Or toilets that flush without filling our ears with a sudden burst of static? All the parents of toddlers I know would be ever-so grateful. Both adults and children would exit the room feeling a good deal less stressed.
Can we make this happen now, please?
And then can we apply what we’ve learned about helping humans peacefully enter and exit public places to airports, grocery stores, malls, and schools?
Libraries, just hang tight for this conversation. You’ve got it covered already. ;)
Of course, even if human-designed areas of our world were created with a calmer, more natural mindset, our children would still find things to be scared of. As a mom of two, I’ve seen my own children experience both little fears and bigger anxieties as they entered and exited toddlerhood.
There was the year that dogs became a huge issue and meeting a dog-walker in the neighborhood ended in my child running away and hiding behind a bush. There was the year that hard candies were banned (lest a family member choke on them). And, of course, we had our fair share of bedtime battles because nighttime itself is dark and scary.
Childhood Fears Are Common
When parents share with me the things their children are afraid of, common themes always emerge:
Animals, like…dogs, cats, insects, spiders, snakes, or roosters.
Being Separated...like at a playground, in a grocery store, on a crowded street, or while attending a class.
Unexpected Lights or Voices...battery-powered toys, talking electronics (Siri / Alexa / Google Home / the car GPS system), talking baby dolls, or alarm clocks.
Excessively Loud Noises, like...car washes, jet planes, hair dryers, blenders, lawn mowers, garbage disposals, toilets, or vacuums.
Fantasy and Masked Characters, like....people in holiday costumes like Santa or the Easter Bunny, clowns, or cartoons. (And let’s not forget monsters!)
The Dark… Who are we kidding, though? Even most adults feel uncomfortable in the dark. Fear of the unknown and unseen is part of the human experience. So if we feel a little creeped out and vulnerable ourselves by burglary noises in the dark, scary clown pictures, or being alone at the park, how do we help our children overcome their anxieties?
Acknowledge the Reality
It can be tempting to dismiss the fear entirely -- especially if you know that your child is safe. However, just telling her not to be scared isn’t going to be effective.
Instead of saying, “Don’t be afraid,” or “You’re okay,” acknowledge the intensity of her emotions.
Describe what you see. For example, “Your body is very rigid and you’re hiding behind me. The noise of the hand dryer is very loud, isn’t it? You’re scared. Lots of people are afraid when they hear loud noises. I understand how you feel.”
Some children will need a simple hug or cuddle after a frightening experience, and that simple physical contact will assure them that you are there. Other children may appreciate some kind and comforting words, like “I love you so much, and I will keep you safe,” or “I am confident that the hair dryer will not hurt you.”
What’s behind door number 1? Is it a tiger? If you open that door and engage your child’s natural curiosity, you are allowing her to consider new possibilities to reframe her own fears.
If a dog bark sends your child into panic, talk about how animals communicate with one another and what they might be “saying” if they could express themselves like humans do. Show how high pressured soapy water and a soft brush can rinse away dirt, just like the automatic car wash does.
By revealing the truth behind the object of anxiety, you are allowing your child to choose whether to be afraid or not.
That’s real empowerment! You’re being supportive, empathetic, and kind when you educate about reality.
The fears may not go away completely, but your attitude toward them will make a world of difference for your child.
You can find more effective strategies to tame tantrums, overcome challenges (like fears), and help your child grow in my book, Toddler Discipline for Every Age and Stage.