Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! If you have children who are 4 – 5 years old, you can count on them being fearful of wild animals, monsters, and the dark—it’s a normal part of their development. Children need the experience of mastering their fear to be a competent adult. If you think of sports success as being the result of practice, then it’s easy to understand why learning to master your fears is a good thing.
Almost all children have fears. Some of the most common fears are bugs or ghosts. And no matter where in the world they live, kids are afraid of many of the same things.
What are those common fears, and when do they typically turn up in children’s lives?
Babies and young children:
- Infants ages 5 to 12 months old are afraid of objects coming toward them and sudden noises. They’re also wary of strangers, although that depends on their family and how much they’re around other people.
- Toddlers’ fears center on their relationship with their parents and fears of being left alone. They will go off to play but will constantly check back with the parent. They recognize they are vulnerable.
- For kids ages 3 and 4, there’s the fear of animals, snakes, the dark and monsters. At this age, they can’t always separate what’s reality and what’s fantasy in their minds. If they dreamed it, it really did happen. This is the age when nightmares occur.
- For most children, there’s a large drop in fears at about age 5. That picks up again around age 6, when their fears are more about themselves. Will they pass a test? Or will the other children like them?
- At age 7, fears grow out of ideas suggested by TV and movies, performance in school, or dark spaces.
- At ages 8 and 9, school or personal failure, being teased by peers, and disease are common fears.
- At ages 10 to 12, children often fear heights, criminals, older kids, parental anger, and remote possibilities of catastrophe and school failure.
- Older teens tend to express fear about changes in their bodies, isolation, sex and world events.
How to talk with kids about their mental health and how they are feeling
The National Alliance on Mental Illness offers seven tips for talking with your children about their emotions.
- Help them identify their emotions. Create an open and accepting environment for them to express themselves. Try using a visual aid like a feelings chart to help them show you what they’re feeling.
- Listen and validate. Empathize with them, listen with curiosity, and validate their experiences. You could offer support with some of these phrases:
“I’m sorry that happened.”
“That sounds really tough.”
“It’s okay to feel that way.”
“Thank you for telling me.”
“Tell me more—I’m listening.”
- Relate mental health to physical health. Help normalize mental health by comparing it to physical health. Just as treatment is important for physical problems (for example, a sprained ankle or asthma), mental health issues like depression or anxiety are real and deserve proper care. Highlight the importance of a healthy mind and body.
- Encourage kids to ask for help. The fear of being thought of as weak might hold them back from asking for support when they need it. Model the behavior of asking for help and remind them they’re not alone. Highlight that it takes courage to ask for help, and doing so is a sign of strength, not weakness.
- Talk about the value of self-care. Make sure they know it’s important to make time to de-stress (for example going for a walk or getting together with friends). Help them make a self-care plan with fun activities that help them when they feel stressed or overwhelmed.
- Remind them it’s not their fault. Stigma can cause kids to feel shame or guilt about their mental health issues. Remind them that mental health issues are common and don’t mean there’s anything wrong with them as people. Highlight their positive qualities and strengths.
- Have conversations with them often. Check-in using questions like:
“What’s something exciting you’re looking forward to?”
“How are things going with your friends?”
“What’s the biggest problem you’re facing now?”
“Have you been feeling sad or upset lately?”
“How is your body feeling? Are you having stomach or headaches?”
“What is your favorite way to relax when you feel stressed?”
Other techniques for reducing kids’ fears and anxiety
If you know in advance about a situation that will most likely upset your child, plan ahead. If you’re moving, introduce your child to the new home beforehand, if you can. If you’re taking a vacation without your children, make sure the babysitter comes to the house a lot before the vacation.
Diversions are another tactic for offsetting fearful events. If your child is going to your healthcare provider’s office for a shot, try doing something fun or interesting on the way home. Or bring some favorite books to the office to read.
Find child-appropriate solutions. Be sure you’ve tuned into your child’s emotions, not your own. Then find ways that work to cope with those fears from the child’s point of view. For example, if your child is afraid of the dark, you might:
- Add a nightlight to the room
- Do a “monster check” each day
- Get a stuffed animal that’s designed to fight monsters
- Help your child develop a routine to deal with the fear
- Keep the door cracked open
Don’t force children to face a fear unless they want to. It would be wrong, for instance, to put children who are afraid of snakes into a room full of snakes without preparing them for the experience.
Above all, remember to keep things in perspective. In time, many normal fears are going to pass. The child who is terrified of monsters and can’t get to sleep for a month will say six months later, “Gee, I used to be afraid of monsters.”
What to do if you think a child’s fear is a problem. Parents or caregivers should talk to their healthcare provider if children’s fears significantly get in the way of the activities of daily living.
Resources to help families, children and youth after the recent school shooting
After a mass shooting at a school, it is normal for a parent or caregiver to have fears about sending their child to school or daycare. Please reach out directly to the school or daycare to ask about safety plans and how they are addressing current events.
Parent Guidelines for Helping Youth After the Recent Shooting—The National Child Traumatic Stress Network
Washington State Psychological Association Mass Shooting Coping Resources
Resources for Helping Youth Cope after a Mass Shooting—youth.gov, includes multiple languages
“Once I Was Very Very Scared,” recommended book for preschoolers
What to Say to Kids About School Shootings to Ease Their Stress, an NPR article that discusses where parents can go for help for their children of various ages