behavior development parenting

Overcoming Childhood Fears: A Guide for Parents

Ugh, childhood fears.  They can be exhausting for both you and your child!  The tell us they are afraid, we do our best to assure them they are safe and STILL the fears remain.

I remember one summer when my daughter was about three, she developed a fear of the wind.  Yup, you heard me correctly -- THE WIND!  What do you do about that?!  Every time the tree moved or a wisp blew across her cheeks, back into the house she went.  It.Was.Exhausting...

I wish I had known then, what I know now about child development, but alas, I was early in my journey as an Early Childhood Interventionist and had MUCH to learn.  

And the first place to start is with brain development.  When a trigger event happens, it causes are flight-fight or freeze response to kick in.  As adults, we have the ability to throw analytical thinking in there to help make sound decisions about our safety (at least in most instances).  Our littles do not yet have that capability.  

In my daughter's case, the trigger event was the wind. The response was flight.  Looking back, I'm recalling her seeing bits and pieces of the movie Twister around that age.  Coincidence?  I think not. But I digress...

It is important as well to understand that irrational fears are normal part of development in the early childhood years.  They actually reflect the ongoing maturation of little's cognitive and emotional systems. Here are some other aspects of brain development that may be associated with these fears:

  1. Imagination and Fantasy: As children's imaginations develop, they begin to create scenarios in their minds that may seem irrational to adults but are very real to them. This imaginative play is crucial for cognitive development, allowing them to explore and understand the world around them.

  2. Incomplete Understanding of Reality: Young children are still developing their understanding of cause and effect, reality, and the permanence of objects. They may struggle to distinguish between fantasy and reality, leading to fears of imaginary creatures or situations.

  3. Limited Language Skills: Toddlers and preschoolers may not have the language skills to express their fears or understand explanations about why certain things are not scary. This can contribute to a heightened sense of anxiety.

  4. Brain Plasticity and Sensory Processing: The brain is highly plastic during early childhood, adapting and forming connections in response to experiences. This includes the development of sensory processing systems, and sometimes irrational fears may be linked to heightened sensitivity to certain stimuli as was the case for my daughter and the wind.

  5. Social and Emotional Development: Toddlers and preschoolers are learning about their emotions and how to manage them. Irrational fears can be a manifestation of their growing emotional awareness and the need to regulate these emotions.

  6. Attachment and Security: Children at this age are developing attachment bonds with their caregivers. Irrational fears may be a way for them to seek comfort and reassurance from their caregivers, reinforcing the attachment relationship.

  7. Brain Maturation and Risk Assessment: The brain regions responsible for processing and assessing risks are still developing in young children. This can result in a tendency to perceive threats even in situations where adults see no danger.


So how do we support our kids during these moments in order to help them learn and grow through this challenging stage.  Here are some tips:  

  1. Prioritize Safety:  Safety must always come first.  Let's say you are afraid of snakes.  Your friend comes over with one and wants you to try touching it.  What would you like them to do in the moment?  What would it take for you to feel safe?  To your friend who loves snakes, your fear makes no sense.  A good friend would acknowledge your fear and remove the snake from your home immediately.  So try putting yourself in your child's shoes.  Their fear is VERY real to them. Focus on creating a safe environment during fearful moments.  Remember, their little sensory systems are overwhelmed so use your calm energy to help them regulate -- less is more with young kids so keep the talk to a minimum.  There will be an opportunity for discussion about it later on when they are back to their normal state.  

  2. Validate Feelings:  Acknowledge your child's emotions without dismissing them.   For example, when we say things like "Don't worry, you're fine" we are actually dismissing their fear.  Again, how would you feel if your friend with the snake said that?  You'd probably be pretty pissed that they don't seem to 'get' that you are freaked out.  So, when your child is in the middle of all the big emotions try 'mama is here, you are safe' instead.  

  3. Develop a Plan:  Planning is a necessity as a parent and not enough of us do it!  It is far easier to manage challenging situations such as irrational fears when we have a plan of action ready to go.  Develop a gradual desensitization plan for facing fears.  For example, if your child is afraid of bugs, maybe you start with reading some bug books having your child touch the bugs with you on each page to count them.  From there, maybe you try one plastic but in the sensory been -- no pressure to touch it, just being okay with it being there.  Of course, you always want to follow your child's lead:  if they want it out, take it out!  You want to Involve your child in the process to empower them asking for their thoughts or permission as you go through the desensitization process.  After a while, they will figure out that they have nothing to be afraid of.  

  4. Emphasize Strengths:  Another great strategy is to Introduce affirmations to boost your child's confidence.  Reinforce positive self-talk during challenging situations, e.g., 'look how brave you are touching the bugs in the book!'  Celebrate their strengths and courage.

  5. Share Your Own Experiences:  You can also discuss your past fears (or those of other family members) and how you overcame them.  This helps to demonstrate that overcoming fears is a natural part of life.

  6. Be Patient:  Finally, understand that overcoming fears is a gradual process.  With your continuous support, encouragement, and provision of a sense of safety, this too shall pass.

In summary, helping your child overcome fears requires patience, understanding, and active participation. By prioritizing safety, validating feelings, and emphasizing strengths, you can guide your child through these challenges. Remember, your support plays a crucial role in their emotional development. If you found these tips helpful, give it a like and share it with other parents seeking support. You can click here if you would like a downloadable pdf with more tips.