Things that go bump in the night. Things that go woof. Things that get plugged in make loud noises, suck up everything in sight, or loudly flush down the drain. To an adult, they’re routine, harmless, taken for granted. To a toddler, they can be downright terrifying.
Fear is a common phenomenon in early childhood, particularly between the ages of two and six, though the most common fear triggers change with a child’s age. For the infant and young toddler, the fear of strangers predominates. In the second half of the second year, fear of sudden noises, strange animals and doctors comes into prominence. Around age two, the toilet, the dark and people in masks and costumes (such as clowns and even Santa Claus) top the list of fears. By two-and-a-half, toddlers start worrying about imaginary creatures and possible bodily harm. Of course, there are many children whose fears don’t fit these ‘typical’ patterns: eighteen-month-old who are already worrying about being flushed down the toilet and three-year-olds who suddenly become afraid of dogs.
Fear is not altogether a bad thing. The completely fearless toddler is the one most likely to get into situations hazardous to health and well-being. Nevertheless, since excessive fear can interfere with the normal functioning of a child and his family, it’s important for parents and caregivers to understand the nature of childhood fears and how to handle them.
The Why of Toddler Fears
The infant-innocent, protected, acting largely on instinct and reflex rather than reflection – is a classic example of what-I-don’t-know-can’t-hurt-me. But sometime in the second year, some developmental changes transform all that:
- A little knowledge. Getting smarter can make the world seem like a much more dangerous place. The toddler is the proud processor of hundreds of new thoughts, dozens of new concepts, a more mature though process that can synthesize all of these into countless frightening scenarios.
- Too little experience. Able to grasp the concept of cause-and-effect, but without the experience to sort out the reasonable from the un-, the toddler is now able to ponder possible adverse effects that might seem preposterous to an adult. If a vacuum cleaner sucks up the dust and dirt, could it also suck up me? If the dog next door nipped daddy’s leg, won’t all dogs bite? If water goes down the bath-tub drain, isn’t it possible that a person-especially a small one like me-could, too?
- A sense of size differences. Toddlers recognize how small they are compared to those around them. Picture walking down the street amid people two and three times your size, and you have some notion of why this size is difference can engender fear.
- Growing imagination. As a vehicle that can transport a toddler to play from the dress-up corner to the high seas, or from the brick area to a medieval castle, the imagination can be the source of boundless fun. But when it transport a toddler from the safety and security of his or her normally cozy bedroom to a monster’s lair or a witch’s castle, the imagination can be the source of boundless fear. As imagination grows, fears often do, too.
- Expanding memory. Babies usually forget a frightening or upsetting experience quickly. But toddlers, like elephants, can retain the memory of such events for a long while. Being scratched by a cat, going too high on a swing, falling down a flight of stairs can trigger a persistent fear of cats, swing or stairs. Even fictional events can trigger fears: Sleeping Beauty pricking her finger, Dumbo’s mummy being locked up, Little Red Riding Hood’s grandma being gobbled up by the wolf.
- Increasing mobility. A toddler on the go is bound to be encounter more fear – provoking situations – a meandering dog, a dangling spider, a lawn mover at work – than will a babe in arms.
- Self-centredness. Toddlers are extremely egocentric – all toys belong to them, all attention must focus on them, all experiences happen to them. If a little boy in a book can be chased by a giant, they can be, too. If a little girl on TV can be stung by a bee, so can they. If a siblings can be very ill, so can they.
- Suggestibility. The emotions of others often rub off on toddlers; if a playmate or a sibling displays a fear of escalators or of monsters, they may become afraid, too. If parents are anxious, the toddler may feel insecure.