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Toddler looks shy with hand in front of face

How toddlers develop fears and anxieties

When toddlers become mobile and start to explore the world, they begin to learn about the risks all around them.

With their brains still developing and trying to make sense of all this new information, it’s natural for them to become anxious now and then about what they see.

The good news? Your behaviour as a parent can have a very positive effect on the way your toddler handles these new fears and anxieties.

Common fears in toddlers

Fear of the dark

Monsters

Thunder and lightning

Strangers

Fireworks

Heights and falling

Being alone

Separation from parents

Your child may also be worried about the doctor and dentist, or seeing people dressed up or wearing masks, for example clowns or cartoon characters.

Why does my toddler get scared?

Fear and anxiety are an innate human survival instinct, and a throwback to our evolutionary past. We still retain some of these very ancient fears, such as a fear of snakes. Most toddlers in Ireland have never seen a snake in the wild – but if something slithers towards them, they will instinctively jump away.

This happens because humans have a direct neural pathway from the optic nerve to the flight or fight part of the brain, which bypasses the processing part of the brain. The fight or flight part of the brain tells a toddler to flee, right now, because snakes can kill.

What’s the difference between anxiety, fear and phobia in toddlers?

Fears are usually short-lived, predictable and don’t last forever, for example a worry about monsters under the bed.

Anxiety is a more free-floating and chronic – sometimes lifelong – experience. An anxious trait can run in families for a number of reasons but it’s usually a mix of genetics and the family environment or behaviour. For example, if a toddler’s father has a phobia of dogs, his nervousness can rub off on the child, who may become anxious around these animals too. For this reason, it’s important not to show your own phobia to your child.

Anxiety can develop into phobia, an extreme fear in response to a particular stimulus, such as spiders. A phobia can be triggered after a bad experience, like an attack by a dog. The result is that even a picture of a dog can terrify your child. 

Dealing with your toddler’s anxieties

  • Be consistent, sensitive and patient. It can help your child to feel less anxious.
  • If your toddler is anxious or fearful, kneel down so you’re on his level and give him a hug. Maintain eye contact, and smile.
  • Focus on something to laugh about to lighten the mood, for example the ‘silly monster’s purple fur’.
  • Don’t belittle his fear, laugh at him or say, ‘Monsters aren’t real, silly!’
  • Be brave and calm. Toddlers like to copy.

If your child is scared of a physical activity, for example going down a slide, try making the task a bit easier by letting him start half-way down. Once he is confident doing this, he will be more likely to want to try from the top.

Coping with a phobia

Try a programme designed to gradually increase your child’s exposure to the problem. This is a way of moving your child from extreme fear towards moderate fear, ambivalence and, one day, positive interest.

  • For a child with dog phobia, arrange a visit to a neighbour’s friendly dog – but only when it is asleep.
  • Look at the dog from afar together at first.
  • Once your child is calm, the next step would be to approach the dog, and for you as the parent to stroke the sleeping dog’s back while your toddler watches and holds your other hand.
  • Encourage your child to stroke the sleeping dog’s back.
  • If the dog has woken up, your toddler may be happy to go with you while you take the dog for a quick two-minute walk.

Your child may eventually want to hold the lead himself.

The key is that you don’t let your toddler run away in a state of anxiety – as that teaches the brain that escape solves the problem.

However, don’t force any of these steps – so if your toddler is struggling with them, it’s okay to carry them out on different days. But do keep the momentum going by trying to progress through them in a week.

If your little one can stay near to his fear – but in a very supported and gentle way – it can quickly break thinking that his extreme anxiety is only relieved when he runs away from the trigger.

You can help your toddler with a fear, anxiety or phobia. But you will need to be patient and sensitive, and let it take time. Remember, you know your toddler better than anyone.

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