Fear in children

Fear in children
Children’s fears may be childish, but that doesn’t make them trivial. How can you help your child face them?


All children have fears at different times in their lives. This is a normal part of their development. With patience, understanding, and words of reassurance, you can help your child tame their fears. Read on to find out how.

What are kids afraid of?

Fear is an emotion that arises in response to a danger or a threat. It appears whether the danger or threat is real or imagined. In children, fears usually arise in the face of the unknown.

Experiencing new things, meeting new people, or hearing strange noises can feel threatening to a child because they don’t know how to deal with these situations. For example, they might be afraid to go to the dentist for the first time because they don’t know how it will go.

Fears can also stem from a child’s imagination. Before the age of 5 or 6, it’s difficult for a child to distinguish between their imagination and the real world. Because of this, they might think they’ll actually encounter frightening, fantastical things such as witches, monsters, or dragons.

Here are some common fears children can have at different ages:

  • 8 months: Fear of strangers and being separated from their parents. This fear, known as separation anxiety, can last up to the age of 18 months.
  • 1 year: Fear of noises (e.g., vacuum cleaner, lawnmower, blender).
Some kids are more fearful than others by nature, meaning it’s part of their temperament.
  • 2–4 years: Fear of the dark, imaginary creatures (e.g., monsters, witches, ghosts), and characters such as clowns and Santa Claus. At this age, kids also tend to develop a fear of thunder and lightning, insects, and animals like dogs and wolves.
  • 5–12 years: Fears associated with particular situations (e.g., burglars and kidnappers, doctors and dentists, heights, death, accidents, fires). A child may also become afraid of natural disasters (e.g., earthquakes, storms) or war after seeing images on television. This is also the age where social fears develop, such as the fear of being rejected or of speaking in front of the class.

General tips for helping children overcome their fears

Childhood fears are temporary. As your child grows and experiences more things, they will learn to distinguish which situations are dangerous and which are not. With your help, they can learn to conquer their fears. Here are some tips on how to support them.

  • Take your child’s fears seriously. Don’t make fun or be dismissive. The fear they feel is real, even if it seems unfounded and unimportant to you. On the other hand, don’t overreact, and avoid being overprotective, as this will only reinforce your child’s fear.
  • Calmly comfort your child if they’re distressed by holding them and reassuring them that everything will be okay. It’s important to stay calm even if your child is panicking. Otherwise, they’ll think there really is something to worry about.
See how Mylène comforts her son Charles (video in French).
  • Help your child put words to their emotionsso they can name their fears and you can talk about them together. Tell them you understand and try to show them that there’s no danger and that they’re safe.
  • Try to decode your child’s signals to help them talk about how they feel. Your child might express their fear by hiding, closing their eyes, or shaking.
  • Choose your words carefully. If you say, “Don’t be afraid, it won’t hurt!” when taking your child to the dentist, you’re sending the message that there could be danger. Instead, say: “You’ll see, dentists are used to helping kids. It’s going to be fine.”
  • Build up your child’s courage. Remind them of situations where they don’t feel afraid. Talk about a time when they overcame their fear and remind them how they did it.
  • Talk about fears that you had as a child and the tricks you used to keep them at bay and stay calm. Your child will realize that they aren’t the only one with fears and that there are many ways to overcome them.
Changes such as a divorce, moving, family reorganization, or trouble at daycare can make a child more anxious and amplify their fears.
  • Pay attention to how you react when you’re afraid. If you scream at the sight of a spider or the sound of thunder, you might pass your fear on to your child. If you can’t contain your reaction despite your best efforts, play it down by laughing at how surprised you were.
  • Use games, drawings, and stories. Playing peek-a-boo is a good way to help a baby deal with separation anxiety. Drawing can also help your child express their fears. If your child is afraid of dogs or ghosts, you can tell them stories about a nice dog or a nice ghost!
  • Don’t force your child to face their fears. Go at their pace. When you feel that your child is ready, gently encourage them by exposing them bit by bit to what scares them. Gradually, their fear will recede, and their sense of security will grow.
  • Celebrate your child’s successes. Even the smallest accomplishment will encourage your child to try again.

Should we avoid telling kids scary stories?

No.Stories featuring potentially frightening characters allow kids to name the emotions they feel toward them. Because stories often feature heroes who triumph over villains, your child can identify with these characters and overcome their fear. Choose bookswith plenty of humour so your child can see the lighter side of their fears. Don’t worry if they ask to hear the same story every night. It may be a sign that they’re in the process of taming their fear!

Seven common childhood fears and how to deal with them

Some fears can have very specific solutions. Check out our tips on how to support your child based on what scares them.

Fear of the dark and monsters

Nighttime fearsare common. Your child might imagine seeing all kinds of things in the dark. You can help them overcome these fears by reassuring them and talking with them about it during the day or before bedtime.

When you comfort your child, you help them feel safe. This feeling gives them the courage they need to face and overcome their fears.
  • Reassure your child that monsters only exist in books and on TV. You can check once under the bed with them, but no more than that. If you do it every time, you’re telling them there’s a reason to be afraid. You can also tell your child that you’ll come check on them when they’re asleep to make sure everything is okay.
  • Establish a calm routine before bedtime to make your child feel secure: for example, a bath followed by a story or quiet games.
  • Get a small nightlight to reassure your child. You don’t have to turn it on every night. It’s better to give your little one the choice to use it or not. You can also leave a flashlight for them in their room.
  • If your child wakes up scared in the middle of the night, go comfort them right away and listen to them without interrupting. Then, help them differentiate between their imagination and reality. For example, taking them to the bathroom or to get a drink of water may help distract them or make them feel better by showing them that everything is okay in the house. If your child still seems very anxious, you can lie down with them in bed until they calm down. However, you shouldn’t make a habit of doing this every time they’re afraid, as their fear could grow worse.

Using imaginary solutions to give your child a sense of control

If talking is doing nothing to soothe your child, you can help them gaina sense of control by asking them what they would do to fight a monster. You can also propose a make-believe solution yourself. For example, give your child a plastic sword to fight a monster or tell them to yell if a wolf comes into the house. Knowing what to do can make your child feel secure enough to fall asleep. That being said, even if this strategy reassures your child, always remind them that monsters don’t exist and that wolves don’t come into people’s houses. The idea is to make them realize that they never need to use the sword or yell because there is no real danger.

Fear of dogs

The best way to have good experiences with dogs is to first know how to approach them (link in French).

  • Get your child used to asking your permission before going up to someones dog. When they’re older, they can go ask the owner directly.
  • Explain to them how to approach a dog. “Stand to the side, without looking them in the eye. Let them sniff your hand. Afterwards, you can pet the side of their belly.” Then show them how to do it by approaching the dog yourself.
  • Tell them stories about friendly dogs. This will help them develop a positive view of the animal.
  • Follow their lead and gradually encourage them to go up to a dog when youre with them. If necessary, hold them in your arms.

Fear of doctors, vaccines, and shots

To reassure your child, try to take away some of the unknowns.If they have an idea of what to expect, they’ll feel more in control and less fearful.

  • Explain, in positive terms, what the nurse or doctorwill do.
  • Calm their worries. For example, you can say: “It’s a little uncomfortable, but it doesn’t hurt very much. It’s going to be a bit like a mosquito bite.”
  • Use descriptive language. For example, when taking them to the dentist, say: “You’ll see, the dentist is going to tickle your teeth to see how healthy they are.”
  • If possible, let another family member go first to serve as a positive example.
  • Mention theextensive experience of the doctor, dentist, or nurse: “This nurse helps kids just like you every single day. It’s so easy for her, and everyone leaves smiling.”
  • Role-play before the appointment. For example, pretend that you’re the doctor or dentist and your child is the patient. Then, switch roles. In addition to making the situation seem less intimidating, this will give your child some semblance of experience and a sense of control.

Fear of clowns and Santa Claus

These characters can be intimidating for a child because they don’t know that someone is hidden under the disguise. Some kids also don’t know whether they can trust these characters.

  • Prepare your child to go see Santa Claus. Explain that he’s a nice man and that kids go sit on his lap if they want. Show them books or pictures to make Santa seem more familiar.
  • Don’t rush your child. Don’t force them to go up to a clown or to go see Santa Claus. Let your child observe from a distance so that can get used to these characters.
  • If your child is scared, don’t put them in the arms of the person dressed as Santa Claus or as a clown, even just for a picture. Instead, hold your child and go up to them without making any physical contact.
  • Sit on Santa’s lap yourself. For some kids, this will take away some of their fear and even make them laugh.
  • Let the person dressed as Santa or as a clown show your child that there’s nothing to be afraid of. For example, Santa might skip his booming “Ho ho ho!” and just smile and gently shake his bells instead. Sometimes that will be enough.
  • Trust the ripple effect of other kids. Seeing a big sister or a friend walk up fearlessly to Santa (or a clown) might help your child overcome their own fear.

Fear of bugs

The best way to calm this fear is through gradual exposure.

  • Get your child interested in the world of insects. In the summer, observe a colony of ants carrying food, a spider spinning its web, or a bee foraging among flowers. You can also visit an insectarium.
  • Help them become familiar with bugs that scare them. For example, you can look at books about insects with your child and explain what they do.
  • Ask your child to describe what scares them about bugs. Once you understand their fear, you give them the information they need to feel less threatened.
  • If possible, give them a “face-to-face” experience with an insect, first by observing it from a distance in its natural environment, and then by capturing it. Place the insect in a clear, ventilated plastic box so your child can study it in peace. Release it once your child is used to it.
  • Let your child invent bug killers or traps using their imagination. This way, they can gain control over their “enemy.”

Fear of disasters

It’s normal for a child to feel afraid if they’ve witnessed a disaster or a tragic event. Talking to them about their emotions and worries helps to reduce this fear.

  • Ask your child questions to understand what’s worrying them. Help them put what they’re feeling into words.
  • Reassure them that you understand that they might be worried. Remind them that you’re there to protect them and that they can rely on you.
  • Simply answer their questions. It’s best to start with the questions your child already has. This way you won’t give them details that might worry them more instead of making them feel better. Use simple words to explain the situation. It’s important to consider your child’s age.
  • Let them know that these events (e.g., tragedies, fires, earthquakes) are very rare.
  • Explain how people get through these things to give them confidence. For example, you might mention that after an earthquake, people from all over the world come to help the victims rebuild their homes.
  • Avoid exposure to violent images. Limit your child’s screen time and be vigilant about what they watch.
  • Try to calm your own worries about particular events or disasters. Your child is perceptive, and they might become more afraid if they sense that you’re afraid, too. If you don’t feel that you’re in a state to reassure your child, don’t hesitate to ask for help from a family member, close friend, or professional.

Social fears

When your child starts going to school, they’ll begin comparing themself to others. They may become afraid of not measuring up, being laughed at, making mistakes, losing, or being rejected.

  • Ask your child questions to get them to talk about what they’re afraid of.
  • Listen to your child. Let them know that you take them seriously and that you would never judge them.
  • Invite your child to express themself through play. Act out scenarios with them to recreate the situation that’s causing them anxiety. This can help your child find ways to deal with their fears.
  • Invite their friends over one at a time. This will allow your child to develop their confidence and their social skills. Playing with a friend will also help them see that other kids like them.
  • Allow your child to experience different social activities. You can regularly take them to play at the park or in the alley, participate in activities such as story time at the library, or enroll them in a sport or art activity. This will allow them to overcome their fears and make friends. Accompany your child as needed.
  • Talk about social situations in a positive way. For example, you can say: “You had a great time at Thomas’s party” or “Jeanne is really nice, she let you play with her ball at the park.” By focusing on the enjoyment that comes from playing with others, you can help your child develop a positive view of social interactions.
  • Inform school staff of your child’s fears so that your child can also find help and support at school.

When should you consult a professional?

If your child is always afraid of the same thing and becomes inconsolable at just the thought of it, they may have a phobia. Phobias are more serious than normal, surmountable fears; they prevent your child from going about their daily life. Children may develop a phobia if they have experienced a traumatic event. If you have a family history of phobias, your child may be more likely to develop one.

Consult your child’s doctor or a psychologist if their fears begin to interfere with daily activities or if they seem to be anxious most of the time.

Things to keep in mind

  • Fears are common in children.
  • They are usually related to the unknown or otherwise stem from the child’s imagination.
  • It’s important to take your child’s fears seriously and to help them put what they’re feeling into words so they can name their fears.
  • Gradually bringing your child into contact with what frightens them while always letting them go at their own pace will help them overcome their fears.

 

Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Annie Goulet, psychologist
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: June 2022

 

Photos: shutterstock.com/antoniodiaz and GettyImages/GlobalStock and Oleksandr Hrytsiv

 

Sources and references

Note: The links to other websites are not updated regularly, and some URLs may have changed since publication. If a link is no longer valid, please use search engines to find the relevant information.

For parents

  • Bourque, Solène. Les grandes émotions des tout-petits : comprendre et soutenir les apprentissages émotionnels chez les 2 à 6 ans. Éditions Midi trente, 2020, 139 pp.
  • Filliozat, Isabelle. Au coeur des émotions de l’enfant. Marabout, 2013, 322 pp.
  • Gagnier, Nadia. Maman j’ai peur, chéri je m’inquiète. Collective. “Vive la vie en famille” series, vol. 2, Les Éditions La Presse, 2010.
  • Montreal Children’s Hospital. “You can help your children to manage their fears and phobias.”www.thechildren.com
  • Leroux, Sophie. Aider l’enfant anxieux : guide pratique pour parents et enfants. Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2016, 168 pp.
  • Phobies-Zéro. www.phobies-zero.qc.ca
  • Canadian Paediatric Society. Caring for Kids. “Helping children deal with their fears.” caringforkids.cps.ca
  • Vallières, Suzanne. Les psy-trucs pour les enfants de 0 à 3 ans. Les Éditions de l’Homme, 2017, 240 pp.

For kids

  • Bourque, Solène. Mini loup vit un tourbillon d’émotions. Quebec City, Éditions Midi trente, 2017, 48 pp.
  • Butterfield, Moira. Everybody Feels Scared! QEB Publishing, 2016, 24 pp.
  • Clélaurin, Julie. J’ai peur, peur, peur. Éditions du Seuil, 2013, 12 pp.
  • Couturier, Stéphanie. Le livre de mes émotions : la peur. Éditions Grund, 2018, 24 pp.
  • Bawin, Marie-Aline, and Élisabeth de Lambilly. Tom a peur du noir. Éditions Mango, 2015, 32 pp.
  • Latulippe, Martine, and Nathalie Parent. La peur de Mathis. Mammouth rose, 2020, 32 pp.
  • Llenas, Anna. The Color Monster: A Story about Emotions. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2018, 40 pp.
  • Sweet, Susan D., and Brenda S. Miles. Jacqueline and the Beanstalk: A Tale of Facing Giant Fears. Magination Press, 2017, 32 pp.
  • Watt, Mélanie. Scaredy Squirrel. Kids Can Press, 2008, 40 pp.

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