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Preschoolers’ Fears Explained

Why Totally Normal Things Can Scare the Daylights Out of Young Children

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A young child’s active imagination can lead to newfound fears.
Preschoolers’ Fears Explained
What do you find scary in your house or apartment? Creaking floors? Closed doors? Yappy dogs?

No big deal, you’re probably thinking. But that’s because you’re not three, or four, or five years old. You understand cause and effect, and you’re able to rationalize the unusual or the unexpected in ways preschool kids can’t possibly imagine. How to help your child? The best way to fight fright is to let your child express it—and follow these steps to help her be brave.

1. Fear: Monsters—under the bed and elsewhere

What’s going on: Preschool kids often confuse fantasy and reality, and at this age their imaginations are working overtime. If your child recently heard a spooky story, or saw an unsettling scene in a movie that he can’t explain, it’s easy to understand how he could conjure up scary creatures lurking close by, ready to pounce.

What happens next: Your child might resist or have trouble going to sleep at night, although he may not be able to articulate what’s on his mind and why. He may complain of headaches or stomachaches, especially at bedtime, or when he’s near a place he believes monsters are hiding (say, the attic or garage).

How to tame the fear: It’s important to acknowledge that your child’s fears are real to him. Telling him “There’s no such thing as monsters!” doesn’t work—and could make him hesitant to confide in you at all. Instead, discuss what might help him feel better. Maybe music will keep monsters away, or he’d feel braver if he had a favorite stuffed animal to hold. Maybe he’d like a night-light or a bottle of “monster spray” (water in a spritz bottle) to defend himself. Let your child come up with more ideas.

2. Fear: Dogs—big, small, menacing, or friendly

What’s going on: This fear can be rooted in reality— especially if your child has encountered a dog that barks or snarls incessantly—or even a nice pooch that startles him by jumping. But this fear can also develop without such an incident; dogs can be unpredictable sometimes—just like little kids.

What happens next: Your child may clutch your leg, cower behind you, or run away when he sees a dog. He may try to avoid going for walks or to the park because he’s worried about seeing dogs there.

How to tame the fear: Again, don’t dismiss your child’s reaction as something he needs to get over. Some reluctance around unfamiliar dogs is actually pretty smart. However, if terror is interfering with your family’s daily activities (you can’t go to the playground or visit friends who have a puppy), work with your child on feeling less afraid. You might start by looking at pictures or videos of dogs, for example. Gradually work up to viewing real dogs from afar, pointing out which ones are displaying friendly behavior, like wagging tails. If you can, enlist a friend with a well-trained pup and set up a meet-and-greet for the dog and your child.

3. Fear: Automatic-flush toilets

What’s going on: The self-flushing public toilet is the perfect storm of little-kid fears: It’s loud, erratic, unfamiliar, and…where is that water going, anyway? Will it take me with it?

What happens next: Preschoolers are often afraid of any noise that’s loud, erratic, or unfamiliar. Put them all together and it’s no wonder your child melts down (and refuses to pee).

How to tame the fear: Agree and sympathize: “Yes, these toilets sure are noisy!” Then do what you can to get through it. Have your child put her hands over her ears, or show her how you can cover the toilet’s sensor to stop the flush until she’s ready. Also, she might feel better if she can hold onto you while she sits. If she’s afraid of drains and flushing toilets in general, acclimate her at home. Show her how even toys much, much smaller than she is can’t slip away down the sink or bathtub drain.

4. Fear: Darkness

What’s going on: As with monsters, this one is tied to your little one’s growing imagination. He can picture things that aren’t there, and that includes unseen threats lurking in the dark.

What happens next: Your child may be extra clingy or irritable at bedtime, or in other dark places, such as movie theaters or dimly lit hallways and rooms at home.

How to tame the fear: Sometimes a night-light or glow-in-the-dark stickers on the walls and ceiling are all it takes to get through a meltdown. Or try a flashlight that gives your child some control over the dark. Encourage him to talk through his worries. That can be very reassuring as long as you are not dismissing his fears as silly.

5. Fear: Characters and costumes

What’s going on: Seeing an adult in a costume is scary to a preschooler because it’s unexpected—and often larger than life.

What happens next: Scared preschoolers may react by crying, regressing (asking to be picked up and carried, for example), running away, or refusing to cooperate or participate.

How to tame the fear: It’s OK to hold your child close and promise that you’ll keep her safe. But avoid reinforcing the fear by giving in to it too much. Let your child keep an eye on the character from a safe distance. If possible, encourage her to at least stay somewhat close to the person in the getup until she gets used to the idea. Be her home base while she gingerly steps forward and interacts with the costumed character. It may take several tries!