Parenting Resource

Soothing Your Toddler’s Fears

Oct 18, 2018

For toddlers, the world can be a scary place. Understand how children develop fears and use our suggestions for handling your toddler's Halloween fears.

Some fears we understand. Doctors? Well, yes, because last time we visited, there were shots and who likes those? Dogs? Sure, they look friendly enough, and then they are suddenly all big teeth and claws.

Your toddler may have other fears that are less easy to explain. Monsters under the bed, the neighbor kids in Halloween costumes, the vacuum cleaner. Here’s why young children often develop fears in the toddler years, and suggestions for handling your toddler’s Halloween fears.

Why is your toddler suddenly so fearful?

You may wonder why your brave little baby has turned into a toddler who’s frightened by everything, or at least many things. There are developmental reasons for these new fears.

  • Toddlers can remember things that happened before and can anticipate what might happen next. Your toddler’s memory is improving. She now remembers the doctor’s office and can predict a shot or a finger prick based on her previous experience.

  • Toddlers have expectations about how the world should be and are scared by the unexpected. For example, toddlers have a well-developed idea of what a person “should” look like: a face, a body, two arms, two legs. Masks and costumes can be scary because they challenge children’s basic understanding of what a person is.

  • Toddlers have big imaginations and have trouble telling the difference between what is and isn’t real. In your toddler’s mind, anything can happen: a dragon from a bedtime story could appear in her bedroom or the shadows of tree branches could reach out and grab him.

  • Toddlers aren’t yet old enough to understand logical explanations. You know that there’s no such thing as a monster, that nothing big and scary could possibly fit under the bed. But your toddler doesn’t.

Here’s how to handle your toddler’s common Halloween fears.

Handling Halloween

You may be eagerly awaiting your child’s second or third Halloween—that adorable costume!—only to discover she is totally freaked out. Here are some strategies to make the festivities easier for both of you.

  • Provide some (non-frightening) masks and costumes for you and your child to play with during the weeks before Halloween. Peeking through the eye-holes, and seeing you do the same, will help him get used to the idea of costumes before the 31st rolls around. You can even “pretend play” how to trick-or-treat by knocking on the door to a bedroom and saying “trick-or-treat.”
  • Share stories about Halloween traditions like trick-or-treating so your child knows what to expect. Some good books for toddlers include: Clifford’s Halloween by Norman Bridwell and Apples and Pumpkins by Anne Rockwell.
  • Trick-or-treat during the daytime—or skip it altogether. Many community organizations have Halloween programs that don’t require going out at night when everything is a little spookier.
  • If you do trick-or-treat in the neighborhood, 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. Also consider going with friends—a peer group your child knows and trusts—to give him a little extra confidence at the door.
  • Remember that toddlers are rarely out after dark. If you plan on trick-or-treating in the evening, take your toddler outside with you for a short walk (with a flashlight) prior to the big night. Notice the moon, the sky, and the shadows. Let your child experience darkness with you a few times before heading out on Halloween. You can also share children’s books about the dark like the wordless picture book Flashlight by Liz Boyd, and the stories Orion and the Dark by Emma Yarlett (about a boy who is afraid of the dark), The Midnight Library by Kazuno Kohara, and Touch the Brightest Star by Christie Matheson.
  • How to handle trick-or-treaters at your door? Take a peek first, and if your trick-or-treaters appear to be friendly, 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.”


This article was adapted from a ZERO TO THREE-American Baby Magazine column.

About Baby Steps

This article was featured in Baby Steps, a ZERO TO THREE newsletter for parents and caregivers. Each issue offers science-based information on a topic of interest to parents and caregivers of young children—from sleep to challenging behaviors, and everything in between.

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