Toddlers fears cannot make life miserable for all concerned, but if they get out of hand, they can be crippling to a child’s growth and development. To help your toddler deal with fears.
- Acknowledge that the fears are real. They may be irrational, but they are – like adult fears – real. Though ignoring many other kinds to banish them, ignoring fear isn’t likely to help. In fact, pretending a fear doesn’t exist often intensifies it and/or makes it the basis of a lot other fear (a fear of birds may grow into a fear of all animals; a fear of spiders may beget a fear of all insects).
- … but don’t force your toddler to confront them head-on, either. A sink-or-swim approach is rarely effective when it comes to fears. Forcing a toddler who is afraid of dogs to pet the neighbour’s collie, dunking a toddler afraid of water in the swimming pool, or insisting that a toddler afraid of monsters check under the bed and in the closets for that nocturnal nemesis could turn a fear into a phobia. Admonishing ‘be brave’ or ‘don’t act like a baby’ is also bad medicine. Instead, follow a fear-reduction programme that combines sensitive support and understanding with gradual exposure.
- Recognize your toddler’s disadvantage in fighting fear. As adults, we can often get around our fears – we can avoid confronting a fear of flying by taking the train or a fear of heights by staying off escalators. Toddlers, less able to control their environment, aren’t always able to keep their fears at a bay.
- Let your toddler know that everyone has fears. That even grown-ups like Mummy and Daddy are sometimes afraid. Tell an older child that you were afraid of when you were little and how you overcame the fears – endeavouring not to introduce new fears he or she hasn’t thought of yet. It always helps to know you’re not the only one.
- … but try your best to control yours. If your toddler sees you take charge of your fears calmly, he or she may eventually learn to do likewise, based on your model. If, on the other hand, you jump three feet in the air of every time you spy a spider, you’ll be showing your toddler how to let fear take charge.
- Don’t laugh at or otherwise tease your fearful toddler. Even small people take their own fears very seriously. While a little playful teasing may work wonders on a toddler who’s stubbornly refusing to get dressed for day nursery, teasing a toddler who is afraid of dogs by getting on all fours and barking like a terrier will only feed the terror.
- Boost, don’t bash, your toddler’s ego. Self-confidence can go a long way in overcoming fear. So praise every bit of progress your toddler makes-no matter how small-and avoid criticizing steps taken backwards-no matter how big. And most important, never let your toddler feel that you love or respect him or her any less because of the fear.
- Let your toddler lean on you. Fearful toddler need a strong, supportive hand to hold-one that helps to compensate for the confidence they sometimes lack. Approach difficult situations confidently and calmly, reassuring your toddler that you won’t let anything hurt him or her.
- … but not too much. Be aware of letting support foster overdependence. Coddling may reinforce the fearful toddler’s belief that there really is something to fear. Alternatively, it may led to discovery that expressing fear is a reliable route to parental attention.
- Root out sources of fear in your toddler’s life. Scary books (fairy tales can be especially frightening to some children), scary movies, scary cartoons, and a scary televisions news reports (even if a toddler doesn’t appear to be concentrating on the screen, the fleeting image of an aeroplane wreck could have a lasting effect) are all capable of generating fear in a toddler. During this fearful stage, it makes sense to stay away from as many of these stimuli as possible. When it’s not to possible (you go to a childrens film, thinking it will be good family fun, but a scene with a witch leaves your toddler shaken and sobbing ; you happen upon a dogfight on your walk to the park), offer a simple, matter-of-fact, but reassuring explanation about what you’ve witnessed, but don’t dwell on it. Instead, distract your toddler.
Even such seemingly harmless items as a stuffed elephant, a set of dancing bears decorating a cot, or charming teddy-bear wallpaper adorning the nursery wall can provoke a fearful reaction in an occasional child and may need to be removed or covered, temporarily or permanently, to ease toddler fear.
- Make sure that you’re not responsible for the fear. Sometimes, fear in children is triggered by repeated parental warnings (‘Stay away from strangers-they might try to steal you’), actions (placing a child in a dark room with the door closed), or threats (‘If you’re not good, we’re going to have to send you away’). And while overly harsh discipline can increase fearfulness, paradoxically, so can an absence of discipline, living in a home where there are no external controls can be frightening to a young child.
A parent should also be wary of introducing a fear where none exists or where it hasn’t been expressed. For example, saying to your toddler, ‘Don’t be afraid,’ when a cat approaches you is more likely to arouse than allay fear – Better to say, ‘See the pretty kitty. It wants to say hello to us.’