Kids brains amplify fear and anxiety while failing to differentiate the real from the realistic. No wonder two and three year olds start to exhibit seemingly random anxieties: They live in a hybrid reality overgrown with suspicions and prowled by imagined monsters. Parents don’t, which is why it’s so frustrating for those trying to assuage the visceral and nonsensical concerns of otherwise resilient kids. The best way to extract children from the dangers of their own imagination? Create a map of both fears and anxieties, which are not the same thing.
“Every person gets fear,” explains child therapist and anxiety specialist Natasha Daniels. “But not everybody gets ongoing anxiety.”
Toddlers naturally have separation anxiety. Kindergarteners are commonly afraid of the dark. These common fears are a side effect of mental development that don’t warrant concern. But they can mask or intermingle with anxieties, which are less transitory, harder to parse, and can be generalized in a way that becomes harmful for children.
If fear is a moment of hesitancy (not wanting to go off the high dive), anxiety is a harmful obsession (not wanting to go to any high place, ever). The former is a totally understandable impulse toward self preservation that, while illogical, makes coherent emotional sense. The latter is a barrier to experience based on a groundless extrapolation or an inflated sense of danger. Unfortunately, children don’t necessarily excel at communicating the exact nature of their fears or anxieties so it’s hard for a third party to clock motivations. Fortunately, Daniels explains, parents can employ a consistent approach while keeping an eye open for signs of persistent anxiety.
“I always recommend that parents tackle it no matter what,” she says. “The more proactive you are and the more you lean into the anxiety and teach kids to face their fears incrementally, the better.”
Dr. Rebecca Baum, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on the Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, notes that parents can start addressing fears and ameliorating anxieties even before they actually pop up.
The easiest way for parents to do this is to generally be chill. Parents who don’t exhibit fears don’t help children internalize them. By way of example, Daniels talks about the aftermath of a bee sting. “If mom or dad are freaking out every time there’s a bee around that kind of really reinforces to the child that they should be extra scared about this,” she explains. “You want to be robotic. You don’t want to put your emotion onto a situation that’s already difficult for a child.” Advantage goes to the parent that just shrugs it off before getting back to regularly scheduled programming.
And parents should give healthy consideration to that last turn of phrase.
“One thing that can be really helpful, especially for kids that have an anxious disposition, is having a routine,” Baum says. The presence of fewer variables makes it easier to understand behavioral outputs. When a kid starts to get nervous within the context of a routine, it’s much easier to identify and isolate the issue. And it’s easier for the child to do so as well. It puts them in a position to answer a question about what is actually triggering fears.
Once a parent understands the problem, they can address it directly. And that’s precisely the thing to do.
“It can be tempting to really significantly alter the child’s participation or daily activities,” Baum says. “The truth is that a little bit of being nervous about stuff can actually be really motivating. If we don’t experience that feeling and learn to come to terms with it, that can be really detrimental.”
How can kids manage fears? By taking deep breaths or going to their “happy place.” In short, by decreasing the severity of physical reactions to emotional stimuli. Trying to be calm is hard, but kids can manage it when they know the adult next to them actually is calm.
Progressive, incremental exposure also works. A parent with a child who fears bees might want to first explain why bees buzz then maybe read a benign children’s book with a bee character. After that, maybe they can watch a documentary about bees or Bee Movie before going outside and sitting close to some flowers. Fears disappear when the idea behind them (bees are dangerous) starts to feel ridiculous. There’s a reason exposure therapy remains so popular with adults.
Baum is quick to acknowledge that conversations about fear can be awkward. But that’s no reason to fear them and no reason to allow fears to grow unchecked.
The Four-Pronged Approach to Vanquishing Toddler Fears
- Figure out what’s a passing fear and what is an ongoing anxiety by looking for illogic. Start a conversation about generalized anxieties as quickly as possible.
- Create a calm environment by embracing routine and, when routine is suddenly broken, reacting in the most pacific way possible.
- Teach kids to manage their reactions through deep breathing and the mental discipline of going to a “happy place.”
- Consider exposing kids to the things that make them nervous in a controlled environment so they can acclimatize.