Children can fear anything from monsters and dentists, to flies and water. It’s important to recognise that fear is a normal aspect of growing up. Broken down, certain fears tend to be common to particular age groups, though there are no hard and fast rules.
It is important to understand that not all fear is bad. You want your children to have a healthy avoidance of certain things like spiders, drugs, busy roads or even strangers. The key to understanding childhood fears, is to recognise that they are a normal part of your child’s development as he or she starts to learn more about the world. Children’s fears are likely to change over time. The key is to acknowledge the fear and help your child to face it rather than protect them from it.
We’ve listed some common fears at different developmental stages of your child’s growth, followed by tips for dealing with them.
Ages 3 to 6
We’re all familiar with the saying ‘fear of the unknown’ – and at this stage of a child’s development it rings most true. Most fears at this age stem from a lack of familiarity. Pre-schoolers are seeing some unfamiliar things for the first time which can lead to distress and confusion, simply because it is unknown to them.
Separation – At this age children become aware that people can go away but they are still around, so if they can’t see them, they worry that something might happen to them while they are gone, or that something will happen to you.
Someone changes – for example a family member wearing glasses for the first time, or shaving off a beard. Again, this comes down to familiarity. When someone who should look familiar suddenly looks like a stranger it can be a scary thing to face as a pre-schooler.
Loud noises – as they become aware that they cannot control everything, children can develop a fear of loud noises such as lightning, balloons popping, fireworks, and even household appliances like hair dryers and vacuum cleaners. Particularly when the sound is unfamiliar, it can be scary to a young child.
People in costume – whether it be Santa or a character at a theme park, this one is particularly scary for pre-schoolers as they are often required to engage and interact with the person in costume. Not only are the people unknown to them, but they look like no other people they’ve seen before and they are expected to oblige with a hug or sit on Santa’s lap. It is scary!
Monsters – at this age children start to develop imagination, and they can think up some scary stuff! They are still working out fantasy from reality, so it can be a difficult time for them and their parents.
The dark – fear might be fuelled by things children have read or seen on TV which can lead to imaging any number of things hiding under the bed. Noises at night can also be scary as they tend to sound much louder than they are – imagination again comes into play. What might simply be a branch brushing against a window, can sound much scarier to a child who might imagine it’s someone trying to get in!
Bad dreams – bad dreams may result from things children have been exposed to or seen. Peaking at around age five or six, bad dreams are the result of being unable to sufficiently distinguish fact from fiction.
Ages 7 to 11
At this age, children’s imaginations are running wild and they still have trouble separating fact from fiction, which can lead to some scary thoughts. They may still experience many of the fears listed above including, monsters, the dark, and separation.
Mortality – children at this age become more aware that life is finite, and we are all mortal. They learn that once a person dies, they will never see them again. They may start to experience concern about losing a family member or pet.
Independence – with independence comes responsibility. Children may develop a fear of being home alone as they grapple with their imagination and must learn to trust their capabilities and capacity to cope.
Being judged – as children in the upper age group start to turn to their peers more for conversation, friendship, approval, support and entertainment, they may develop a fear of being left out, bullied, judged or disliked. It can be a stressful time for them as they navigate their way through finding out who they do and don’t click with.
Ages 12 and beyond
Outside influences play a larger role at this age as children are exposed to more people and media, and start to learn more about the world around them. Fears at this age are largely externally focused or related to self-worth and finding their place in the world. Many of the fears of the previous age group continue through adolescence, but from a different perspective.
Peer perceptions – as children develop into adolescents they will tend to exert independence which means relying less on parents and family members and more on friends and peers. While this is an essential part of growing up, it can mean that children can become fearful of what their peers think of them, causing angst and affecting self-esteem.
Missing out – Fear of missing out is very real in this age group – so much so it has its own acronym – FOMO. Friendships are important at this age as children confide more in friends and rely on them for support. We all like to feel like we belong, and at this age, children feel pressured to be involved in every activity, conversation, or outing that their friendship group undertakes, for fear of being judged. This fear is linked to the fear of peer perceptions.
Confiding in you – as much as we don’t like to admit it, there will come a point when our children will be too scared to confide in us for fear of being ridiculed, punished, or misunderstood. Although they still want us to be proud of them, they may feel embarrassed about coming to us with their concerns.
Future – children of this age group start to think about what they want to do in the future. As such, exams results and school grades become more important. With the stress of having to do well, children can develop a fear of failure and not living up to people’s expectations.
Frightening events – children at this age become more aware about world news through print, radio, TV and social media. They discover that this can impact them, and they may develop a fear of things such as fire, war, terrorism, and natural disasters. While they learn that these events can happen to anyone, they have yet to develop perspective and may be unable to understand that these events are so rare that they are unlikely to be affected by them. They may also feel peer pressure to watch horror movies that they know will cause them to have bad dreams and make them fearful, but they do not want to let friends down, or miss out.
Mortality – at this age, not only do children realise that death affects everyone, but they learn that death or illness can strike at any time and that life is not guaranteed to extend into old age. This may be heightened if a family member or someone close is involved in an accident or falls seriously ill.
How to deal with children’s fear
Acknowledge – One of the best ways to manage your child’s fear is to acknowledge it. Avoid saying things like “don’t be silly”. To the child the fear is very real, and it’s perfectly normal. Instead, show your child you understand by saying things like, “that does sound scary” or “I can understand why you’d find that scary.”
Talk – Encourage your child to share his or her fears so that you can discuss the fear and put their mind at rest.
Explain – Offer explanations for things that seem scary. Read books together that deal with fears. Some good examples are; Scaredy Squirrel by Mélanie Watt, There's an Alligator Under My Bed by Mercer Mayer, The Dark by Lemony Snicket, Little Mouse's Big Book of Fears by Emily Gravett.
Don’t mollycoddle – It may be a short-term fix to remove the fear (sleeping with the light on for example), but in the long-term it will do little to help your child build resilience and coping skills. In fact, by over-protecting your child you could be sending them the message that they have something to be genuinely fearful of, which will exacerbate their fears.
Reassure – Reassure your child that you understand their fear. Cuddle them and let them know that you will always try to keep them safe, and that you will return when you leave them. Ensure they feel safe in expressing their fears, and discuss the fear and how you can help your child get past it.
Be aware – As much as you are able, monitor what your child watches on TV and social media. While you should not wrap your child in cotton wool and protect them from all the awful things that happen in the world, you don’t want to expose them to things for which they are not emotionally and developmentally ready.
Exposure – Introduce new people or things gradually so that children do not become overwhelmed. If your child is scared of fireworks for example, show him images of fireworks first, then move on to clips of fireworks, with the sound turned down. Gradually increase the sound and explain that it will be even louder in real life. Eventually take him to a live firework display and reassure him it’s OK throughout.
Model behaviour – Children model the behaviour of their parents. If you have a fear of something, avoid passing this fear to your children. While it is appropriate for you to share your fears with your children, when faced with a particular fear, use it as an opportunity to show them how to deal appropriately with fear. Confront your fear and try to remain calm and rational. Children will see your braveness and be more inclined to be brave themselves.
Use a comforting toy – A favourite soft toy or blanket can be very comforting in times of uncertainty or sadness. These items can help your child to shore up their confidence levels and help them cope in stressful situations. Don’t force your child to give up their security item before they are ready as it helps them to realise they can cope with a given situation.
While childhood fears are normal, if your child’s fears are interrupting their usual daily routine and their ability to interact with other people, and you are concerned that they may be suffering from anxiety, you should seek advice from your child’s teacher or a medical professional.
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