Parenting Resource

I'm Scared: Responding to Your Toddlers' Fears

Feb 22, 2010

Unfortunately, trying to talk to your toddler rationally about why she shouldn’t be afraid often doesn’t work. Here's what you can do to help console your toddler.

My Toddler is Afraid of the Doctor

Q: My 26-month-old is terrified of the doctor. Our pediatrician could not be nicer, but my daughter screams and cries when the doctor tries to examine her. Everything seems to scare her, even the things that don’t hurt—like the stethoscope. Any suggestions for making doctor’s appointments go more smoothly?

A: This is quite common as two important developments are taking place for 2-year-olds. First, your daughter’s thinking skills enable her to not only remember the doctor’s office, but also to anticipate what might happen there—like getting a shot or finger prick. She is also becoming more aware of her own body and focused on the fact that it belongs to her. Naturally, she wants to be the boss of her body.

Unfortunately, trying to talk to your toddler rationally about why she shouldn’t be afraid often doesn’t work. This is because 2-year-olds do not yet grasp logic. Instead, build on your child’s growing language and pretend play skills to help her work through her fear:

  • Validate and label her feelings. I know, the stethoscope looks scary. But it only for listening and won’t hurt (but it might be cold!)

  • Be honest with her about what will happen. Don’t tell her it won’t hurt if it will. But let her know it won’t last long.

  • Read stories about going to the doctor. Ask your librarian for recommendations appropriate for your child’s age.

  • Play a pretend game of going to the doctor with one of your child’s favorite dolls or stuffed animals. You can be the doctor first and then see if your child might want to give it a try. Follow her lead to see where she wants this playacting to go. For example, if she tells or shows you that her “baby” is scared, ask her to talk about why. This helps her get her feelings out which allows her to work them through. Then you (as the doctor) can assure her that you will be very gentle and will take good care of her.

  • Find a good time just a few hours before your daughter’s appointment to let her know about her upcoming visit. Make a plan for what the two of you can do if she is feeling scared—for example, bring a favorite stuffed animal to the appointment, or tote along a favorite book to read.

  • When you actually see the doctor, let him or her know about your child’s fear so they can be extra sensitive. Ask the doctor to tell your child what he is going to do before he does it to help your daughter prepare and feel more in control. And let her sit on your lap. Most of the exam can be done this way.

Afterward, let her know how proud you are of her for getting through it. While she may never love going to the doctor (who does?), being sensitive and supportive throughout the process teaches your daughter how to cope with a fear—a skill for life.

From “Your Child’s Behavior,” a column written by ZERO TO THREE in American Baby magazine.

My Toddler is Afraid of the Dark

Q: My 2-year-old son is suddently afraid of the dark. He wants us to leave the light on when he goes to sleep, and if we turn it off after he’s asleep, he wakes us in the middle of the night screaming. What should I do?

A: Fear of the dark is quite common. In order to understand why this is happening now and what you can do, consider where your child is at developmentally. By 2 ?, most children are very engaged in the world of pretend and imagination, and don’t fully understand the difference between fantasy and reality. In their minds, anything can happen at night: the dragon from the bedtime story or the clown from the party could suddenly appear out of the shadows to scare them.

Next, think about any recent changes in his world such as a separation from a loved one, a new baby, a new babysitter, or a recent move. Even what seem like minor changes can make a child feel insecure and fearful.

Finally, your child’s temperament is important. Children who are by nature more fearful and cautious, or, who get over-stimulated easily, are more likely to develop fears. To help your child overcome his night fears:

  • Don’t tease him about the fear (even in good humor), or try to talk him out of it. This can prolong the fear as well as erode his trust in you.

  • Try to control any anger or frustration you might feel. This can increase his distress. It also makes it harder for you to respond sensitively.

  • Make one of his special stuffed animals his “protector” and include it in his bedtime routine. During the day, act out stories in which the protector watches over others.

  • Let him sleep with a night light or leave the hallway light on with his bedroom door open. Using a dimmer may also help. Let your child decide when he’s ready to darken his bedroom.

  • If he normally sleeps in his own room and wakes up in the middle of the night, resist the temptation to bring him into your room. This sends the message that he really is not safe alone in his room. Instead, go to him to reassure him that the monsters aren’t real.

Most children outgrow these fears in a few weeks or months. Your best strategy for now is to be sensitive and patient with your son and know that this, too, shall pass.

From “Your Child’s Behavior,” a column written by ZERO TO THREE in American Baby magazine.

My Toddler is Afraid of People Wearing Masks or Costumes

Q: My 22-month-old son is scared to death of people wearing masks or costumes that cover their faces. Why is this? And how do I make holidays like Halloween a little easier for him?

A: For toddlers, masks and costumes challenge their understanding of appearance (what something looks like) and reality (what it is “really truly” underneath). Toddlers are not yet able to grasp that someone may look like a witch on the outside (the mask) but really be their Aunt Molly underneath.

Children this age have developed a sense of what a “person” should look like. For example, toddlers know that a person “should” have hair on his head (usually a narrow range of colors including brown, black, yellow (blonde), red, or white/gray). People also have two eyes, a nose, mouth and lips. They have a neck and shoulders, a mid-section, two arms and two legs. Masks and costumes are terrifying precisely because they challenge your child’s trust in one of his most basic understandings—what a person looks like.

Imagine seeing a clown. The clown (purple hair, bright white skin, big red mouth) does not, in many important ways, match your child’s image of a “person.” However, the clown does look like a “person” in some ways (arms, legs, neck, etc.). It is the mismatch between what the clown looks like and your child’s expectations that makes this situation so scary and confusing. Some parts of the clown are “normal” and others are not. As your child grows and his thinking skills develop to a point where he is able to accept two opposing ideas (this may look like a clown, but it’s actually my cousin), his fear of masks and costumes will subside.

In the meantime, here are some ideas for making Halloween a little less spooky:

  • Provide some (non-frightening) masks for your child to play with in the weeks before Halloween. Having your child peek through the eye-holes, and seeing you do the same, will help to de-sensitize him before the 31st rolls around.

  • Trick-or-treat during the daytime—or skip it altogether. Many organizations—preschools, malls, churches or synagogues—have Halloween programs that don’t require going out at night when everything is a little spookier, even for grown-ups.

  • If you do go out, avoid those houses with the dry-ice fog! Some families really get into the Halloween holiday (which is great), but these are the houses to skip on your Halloween route. Your little goblin doesn’t need to have the armless hand give him candy or be startled by the stuffed witch that cackles on a motion detector. Stick to houses you know, so your child will be greeted by friendly faces at the door. Walk up and ring the bell with your little one, and crouch down next to her in case she feels unsure.

  • How to handle trick-or-treaters at your door? One answer is to let someone else have the door-answering honors while you and your child play in another room. But if you want your child to participate in handing out candy, first take a peek outside to see whether your visitors are more Casper or Poltergeist. If they’re scary-ish, you may want to hand off your toddler to another adult, and do a solo Snickers distribution this time. If your trick-or-treaters appear to be friendly ghosts, get down at your child’s level and open the door slowly. As you do, tell your child what costumes he will see. If you know the kids, you can ask them to take their masks off so your toddler recognizes who they are “underneath.”

With you there to help and support him, your child will make it through Halloween night—especially once he realizes just what’s in those goody bags he keeps getting at every house.

My Toddler is Afraid of the Vacuum Cleaner

Q: My 21-month-old is scared of the vacuum cleaner. Whenever I try to clean he starts to cry. I don’t know what to do.

A: The vacuum cleaner, from a toddler’s perspective, can look and sound pretty darn scary. Figuring out the reason for your toddler’s fear will help you help him cope in the most effective way. The strategies we’ve suggested for dealing with this fear (discussed below) are useful not just for this situation, but for many situations your son will encounter as he grows.

Here are some possible explanations for your son’s fear:

  1. At fifteen months, children are entering the world of pretend which means they are starting to develop their imaginations. But they don’t yet understand the difference between fantasy and reality. For them, the vacuum cleaner really may be a monster.

  2. Temperament—your child’s individual way of approaching the world—may also be a factor. Children who are generally more fearful and cautious by nature are likely to find an object like the vacuum cleaner scary.

If you think that the vacuum is a scary object for him, you can simply not use it when he’s around. However, you can also find ways to help him learn to manage his fears—a very important skill to develop. At a time when you have no expectation of getting any cleaning done, bring the vacuum out. Then:

  • Let him explore it while it is off. Make it part of a game. See how many times you and he can run around it in one minute.

  • Dress the vacuum up with silly hats and scarves. Make it talk in a funny voice.

  • Have one of your son’s favorite stuffed animals slide down the vacuum. (Using humor can be very effective.)

  • Have your son move it around while it’s unplugged (perhaps again as part of a game) so that he can feel like he’s the master of it.

  • When you think he is feeling very comfortable with it, ask him if he’s ready to turn it on. Perhaps he wants to be in the next room and slowly move toward it.

How children take in and respond to sensory input—such as light, sound, or touch—is also a factor. For example, when faced with the vacuum cleaner, some children are fascinated by the blaring noise, some totally fall apart, and yet others seem to hardly notice. If you find that your son is sensitive to other noises in his environment (i.e., prefers softer music, gets distressed in noisy places like the mall or grocery store), then he needs two things from you:

  1. First, protect him from this upsetting noise. Vacuum when your son is out taking a walk with his dad or have dad do the vacuuming when you’re out playing with your son.

  2. Help your son learn to adapt to unpleasant sounds that he will eventually be exposed to in his daily life. So introduce him slowly to new and different sounds but stop when he begins to show distress. Over time you will help his system handle sounds that are now overwhelming him.

With time, rest assured, your son will conquer the vacuum cleaner and move onto bigger “dragons.”