Whether it’s monsters or mutts, show your child ways to manage the things that frighten them.

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It’s natural for toddlers to be frightened of strange people and situations. After all, the world is still a big scary place to them, and they may be intimidated by things that are new, loud, or unfamiliar.


Notes Shrimathi Swaminathan, a clinical psychologist at Psynaptica, “Children may have any number of vague, unspecified fears or anxieties as they learn about their environment and the potential dangers they could face in it. This fear is marked by increased physiological surges of arousal to face the danger or escape from it.”


Adding that symptoms of fear in children usually include signs of distress such as crying, tantrums, excessive clinginess, freezing or vomiting, she says, “When the fear symptoms last more than six months, cause impairment to a child’s functioning or are significantly out of proportion to the situation professional help may be needed.”


Parents are responsible teaching their offspring how to manage their phobias and helping them feel safe before they are paralysed by the fears. We have details on common fears toddlers may face, as well as advice on helping them cope

1. Fear: Separation


Why: Children with separation anxiety may worry about bad things that might happen to themselves or to the person they are attached to once they are apart, Shrimathi observes. Stressful life circumstances such as moving to a new country, changing schools, the birth of a sibling, parental divorce and/or conflict can sometimes trigger symptoms of fear as well.


What to do: Shrimathi suggests that parents remain calm and follow goodbye routines. Let your child know if you need to be away from them for a period of time, and give them something that reminds them of you (such as a photo or trinket).


Also, talk to your child about the fun activities they will be doing in your absence. Do try to practise separation gradually as well start with 5 minutes of you in another room, then 5 minutes outside, then 10 minutes and so on.

2. Fear: Animals (such as dogs, spiders, birds)


Why: Your little one may have had several bad experiences in the past, such as being bitten by a dog or know someone who was bitten. Fears may also stem from a lack of exposure to the animal, and limited understanding of the animal’s temperament and behaviour towards humans in general.


What to do: Give them exposure to the feared animal gradually. For example, if your child is fearful of dogs, show them a book with dog pictures, Shrimathi suggests. Look at the pictures together until your child feels calm. Then, move on to letting them hold a fluffy stuffed toy dog, and watching movies about dogs.


Later, take them to the park and look at dogs from a distance. Then proceed to visit a friend or neighbour with a small and calm dog hold the dog while your child watches. Eventually, let the dog come near you child and encourage them to pet the dog.

3. Fear: The dark


Why: A fear of the dark may not always be about darkness in itself, but of imagined dangers lurking about. Due to the fact that darkness obscures their vision and they can’t see what’s around them, they may feel unprotected and therefore unsafe.


What to do: Though this is a common fear among kids, don’t dismiss your child’s feelings or laugh it off. Let them talk about what’s scaring them, and tell them that you can relate to their anxieties. After all, weren’t we all afraid of the dark once?


Consider putting a dim nightlight in their bedroom as well, or glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. Try making fun associations with the dark too take them to the Night Safari to spot animals or put together a scavenger hunt with glow-in-the dark sticks.

4. Fear: Monsters


Why: At this tender age, your child’s imagination is extremely vivid, and they sometimes find it difficult to differentiate between imagination and reality. This fear may also be exacerbated by scary shows, fairy tales and even cartoon monsters who may transform into scary creatures during nightmares.


What to do: Your toddle quite likely will grow out of this fear as he gets older. But in the meantime, minimise exposure to horror movies, scary TV shows and even picture books with fantastical creatures. Let your child tell you why he fears these imaginary monsters.


To show that you take him seriously, ask him to draw a picture of the monster as well. This could give hints as to what is triggering his fear, especially if the monsters look similar to TV cartoon characters.

5. Fear: Clowns, costumes and masks


Why: Similar to a fear of monsters, this dread stems from your little one’s inability to separate fantasy from reality. As such, big costumed characters may scare them because of how realistic-looking they seem, along with the fact that kids don’t know who is behind the mask. Some children might be amused by clowns’ painted faces and funny antics of clowns, others will find them disconcerting and intimidating. 


What to do: Remind your child that there’s always a person behind the mask, costume or clown outfit. Don’t force them to take pictures with mascots if they seem terrified. Instead, stay by their side and let them watch as other children take photographs with the mascots or clown.


You can also offer to take a picture and interact with the mascot first. When your child observes that the costumed character won’t hurt them, they may become bold enough to approach them, too.

6. Fear: Strangers


Why: Your child may have heard horror stories of kids being lured away or kidnapped by strangers, and therefore assume that any unfamiliar person poses a threat. Meeting strangers can also be socially stressful for introverted children.


Of course, being afraid of strangers isn't always a bad thing being cautious helps your child stay safe. However, if your child gets overwhelmed and anxious every time you introduce them to a new person, it may be time to take action.


What to do: Let your child know you’re there to protect them when strangers are around, and never leave them alone with unfamiliar people. Reassure them with hugs and encouraging words. Let your mini-me know in advance when strangers are coming over, as well as explain your relationship to the guests you have invited. So that your child gets used to seeing unfamiliar faces, take them outdoors regularly, to parks, indoor playgrounds or shopping malls.

7. Fear: Doctors and dentists


Why: Let’s face it no one enjoys visiting the doctor or dentist for injections, checkups or tooth fillings. If the sight of a needle can make grown men quake, what more a toddler? They may also fear being in an unknown, sterile-looking environment with strange medical equipment.


What to do: Before any medical or dental appointment, brief your child on what they can expect during the procedure. Make it a point to stay with them throughout holding their hand and reminding them how brave they are.


Try to also find a paediatrician or dentist who can communicate well with your child and put them at ease. If possible, offer a small reward to your child after the visit.  

Ways to help your child manage their fears


Shrimathi offers several helpful tips for helping your child deal with things that scare them:


* Build emotional awareness and skills Acknowledge your child’s fear and encourage them  to talk about it. Tell your child you hope they’ll get over their fear in the future.


* Fill in the information gaps Help them learn more about what they fear.


* Manage avoidance behaviours with a stepladder approach. Often children with a phobia will avoid a situation entirely. In this method, you let your child approach the feared situation/animal/object gradually while giving them something comfortable to hold. This is the stepladder. Explain that this helps them take one step at a time to get to the top (where there is no fear).


* Introduce activities like colouring or music These provide a soothing effect that may counter the fearful emotion.


* Manage your own fears Children can also learn anxious style of responding to situations from an overprotective parenting style. Anxiety in parents and ongoing tensions in the home often maintain fearful responses.