Q: I am blessed with four wonderful and healthy children ranging from an infant through a seven year old. My three younger children seem absolutely fearless (which is sometimes problematic), but my oldest seems to be scared of everything. He won’t go into rooms without the light on, even if the shades are open and it is light outside. He refuses to walk down a crowded supermarket aisle if I do not go first. And, he is always telling me that he has trouble going to sleep because of the monsters in his bed or the story his teachers told him during parsha.
I keep thinking he will grow out of his fears, but I just don’t know anymore. I have started wondering – which fears are normal and which are not? Is there a way to alleviate irrational fears?
A: As children grow, the things that scare them change, but most children regardless of their age, have rational fears that can be addressed. Just think about yourself – there are things that you still fear even though you are an adult. Of course, there is a difference between rational and irrational fears. So, what fears should you expect from diverse age groups?
Dr. Susan Miller, a professor emerita of early childhood education at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania outlines what to expect at different ages:
Birth to Two Years
Loud Noises: Sirens, alarms, construction, or even other children suddenly screaming can startle babies as young as a few weeks old.
Stranger Anxiety: At around 6 months, infants begin to be wary of people who are not part of their daily surroundings, often crying if they are held by strangers.
Separation Anxiety: At about 18 months, toddlers become highly sensitive to the comings and goings of important people in their lives. They tend to fear that those that are close to them will leave.
What you can do:
Talk about fears. Even if they cannot understand the words you are saying, babies can read your tone and body language and understand that even if the other person is unfamiliar, you trust them and therefore they should too.
Play separation games. Games like peek-a-boo let your child know that even if you disappear, you are going to come back, helping to ease separation anxiety.
Three to Four Years
Dark. When children’s imaginations begin to develop, bedtime can be a scary time. They imagine horrible monsters coming out of the shadows in their room, prompting them to fear the dark at night.
Mortality. If a pet or grandparent passes away, children at this stage can be scared that they too will die.
What you can do:
Offer comfort and encourage discussion. Give hugs and let your child talk about what is scaring him. Don’t dismiss his fears as not being “real.”
Prepare your child for frightening things. Read books about what happens in the dark or about going to the dentist. This will help your child create a happy ending to his imagined fears.
Five to Six Years
Failure. At this age, children stop being as self-focused and start to recognize their peers’ opinions. Because of this, they become more fearful of looking foolish if they make a mistake. Therefore, at this age, children often are scared of taking chances.
What you can do:
Be a role model. Show your child how you take risks and fail. Showing him that the world does not end when we make mistakes is a great way for him to recognize that he will be okay too.
Encourage practice. Give examples of how your child practiced in order to get where he is right now. For instance, he did not always walk. First, he took one step, fell down, and then got back up. Everything takes practice in order to do well.
As children mature, their fears become more emotional than physical. This is typical and expected. But, if your oldest child’s fear are not allowing him to function normally at school or at home, consider seeking the help of a professional to evaluate where those fears are coming from – and how you can help him overcome them.