Suddenly your happy-go-lucky toddler is afraid of the dark, screams when you leave the room and puts up a major protest when you mention the doctor. Although it can seem overwhelming, these fears are common and a normal developmental stage.

It sometimes seems as if these fears came out of the blue, and you might wonder why your toddler is suddenly afraid of witches, wolves or the washing machine. There are several main reasons why her fear could have started, and you may never find out precisely what caused it.

  • Past experiences. Dr. Julia Gallegos, professor and researcher at the Center for Treatment and Research on Anxiety (CETIA) of the University of Monterrey in Mexico, says that by the age of two or three, children "have experienced real fear or pain from different situations such as being lost or injured." These experiences can cause a fear of experiencing a similar situation in the future.
  • Vivid imaginations. According to Gallegos, one of the main reasons kids develop fears is their vivid imagination at this age. Toddlers find it hard to distinguish reality from fantasy and may believe that their nightmares are real.
  • Cause and effect. Toddlers have difficulty with the idea of cause and effect. Instead of seeing a rational explanation for behavior—it's Halloween, so Mom's dressing up in a costume and a mask—she only knows that Mom is suddenly scary and might really be a monster.
  • Individual personality. Professor Paula Barrett from Pathways Health and Research Centre, Australia, says, "Some children are more sensitive than others. If they are exposed to fear-provoking situations and have yet to learn positive coping skills they may react with worry and avoidance. Indeed, the development of fearful behaviors results from the interaction between individual sensitivity, exposure to challenging situations, and a lack of positive coping skills modelled through parental and other support networks."

So how can you help your little one deal with her newfound fears? Several good strategies exist, and you can use one or more, depending on your child and the particular fear. Each kid's different, and what worked for her older brother might not reassure your toddler. Try various methods to see what helps your child the most.

  • Gradual exposure. Gallegos suggests "gradually and gently" exposing your tot to things that are scary. Read picture books about the fear and tell her stories about other kids that are also afraid. If she's scared of the first day at daycare, Gallegos advises building her confidence by visiting the center in advance or staying with her for the first day.
  • Logical explanations. Because toddlers don't always understand what's real and what isn't, you need to teach her that monsters are make-believe and dragons don't exist. Gallegos suggests explaining how some of the things that scare her work. If your toddler is afraid of being sucked down the plughole in the bathtub—a common fear for this age group—explain that the holes allow the water to be carried away but are small enough that anything larger, like her toys, won't fit down the pipe.
  • Honesty. If you want your explanations to reassure your kid, she has to trust what you say. Gallegos encourages parents whose children fear separation to prepare a goodbye routine instead of sneaking out. Talk about what you'll do when it's time to go—such as waving, blowing a kiss or singing a song—so that she's able to prepare for your exit.
  • Model appropriate responses. Young children learn from what they see. If you haven't learned to deal with your own fears, you can't expect your tot to deal effectively with hers. Gallegos says parents should let kids see you managing your own fears, "modeling non-anxious and consistent behavior." This can include anything from meditating, taking slow, deep breaths in high-stress situations, or even speaking with a licensed professional.
  • Rewards. Reward brave behavior and check progress: what problems were encountered and what successes were achieved? If your toddler's terrified of creepy crawlies, praise him for staying calm when a spider sneaks across the floor—or reward him with extra playtime for not having a meltdown.

If your kid's fear seems extreme or abnormal compared to other children her age, or prevents her from living a normal life, there could be a deeper issue. Contact your doctor if you're concerned. Gallegos says parents shouldn't wait too long to discuss the problem—the earlier you address it, the easier it will be for your child to overcome, and the less likely to develop into a phobia.

Gallegos says the most important thing for parents dealing with a scared toddler to remember is that some fears are part of their normal development, and "no matter how irrational the fear seems to you, always accept your child's fears as valid and support them if they feel frightened." Model calm responses in scary situations, and eventually your little one will display similar brave behavior.