Preschoolers have many fears. Some are real and triggered by actual situations—a neighborhood bully, a snarling dog, or fighting parents. Others are common to the age group (fear of the dark, separation anxiety, fear of being displaced by a new baby) or are related to your child’s personality (fear of new situations or fear of groups). Still others are imaginary, such as fear of monsters.
Parents may try many strategies for taming their children’s fears, from reassuring their children to forcing them to confront the situation that scares them. What's the best way to erase childhood fears and help your child get back on track?
1. Get a Child’s Eye View
An effective way to deal with your preschooler’s fear is to get down to your child’s level and look at the fear through her eyes—literally.
- Squat on the sidewalk and get nose to nose with that barking dog. It looks much larger and scarier than when you’re towering over it.
- A bug grows in size if you’re two feet tall rather than five or six.
- Being lost in a sea of bustling legs and unable to find your way out of the crowd or identify a familiar leg is more terrifying than when you can see over people’s heads to orient yourself to your surroundings.
Putting yourself in your preschooler’s place is often enough to give you a better picture of why he’s afraid of something.
2. Understand the Magnitude of the Fears
Think about how you might feel if you were asked to give a speech to a large crowd, or remember how nervous you felt on the first day at a new job or when you were waiting to hear test results from your doctor. Preschool fears loom this large, but have an added level of anxiety: you’ve faced similar situations in the past, so you have a wealth of knowledge to draw on. You can self-soothe, give yourself a pep talk, find a comparison point or talk out your anxieties with friends.
Preschoolers haven’t developed those coping mechanisms yet. To them each frightening new situation is a first. And even the most precocious preschooler doesn’t have the language skills to express all the feelings tumbling around inside her head. Some of them she may have never felt before, so how can she put them into words?
3. Listen with Respect
When your preschooler does communicate her anxiety, don’t brush it aside. “Try to depersonalize the fear by getting your child to talk about it or label what’s making him scared,” says William Coleman, a behavioral pediatrician at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. “Fears won’t go away if you ignore them.”
If you’re nervous about a job interview, does it help when someone says, “Don’t worry about it”? Or worse yet, “Don’t be silly”? You want your friend or spouse to empathize, to listen, to let you express your concerns. Give your preschooler the same courtesy. Listen carefully and validate his feelings. This will not only keeps the lines of communication open between you as he grows older, but it lets him know that his feelings are normal and acceptable.
4. Trust Your Child to Solve the Problem
Preschoolers can be quite creative about solving their own problems and handling their fears. “My daughter had horrible nightmares about a bear attacking her,” says L.J. Wallower, a parent and former preschool teacher. “When I asked her what she thought would help, she came up with the idea of a ‘bear stick.’ She slept with a stick under her pillow to whack the bear. Amazingly enough, she stopped having nightmares.”
Let your preschooler know you have faith in her problem-solving abilities. If you see her as brave, she’ll believe she is. When your child comes up with an idea for confronting a situation she fears, role play it with her so she can practice skills in the safety of home before she faces the real situation. And remember, the more fears your preschooler overcomes now, the greater her coping skills will be when she faces other frightening experiences later in life.