There’s no denying that it’s a big, scary world out there—especially when you’re a toddler. Due to a combination of newly developing imaginations, taking in many brand new situations, and experiencing more sophisticated emotions, fears and phobias are common in toddlers. In fact, in most cases, they’re even considered normal and perfectly healthy.
But just because fears are a normal part of childhood doesn’t mean you don’t want to be there for your child when they’re afraid. Keep these tips in mind to make sure you can comfort and soothe your child, and find the best way to help them move past their fears.
Respect Their Fears
Sometimes, your toddler’s fears may seem absurd to you—or even outright funny. For instance, they may fear that they can be sucked up by a vacuum cleaner, that the toilet can swallow them, or that the character on a cereal box will jump out and hurt them.
No matter how silly the fear may seem, make sure that you don’t patronise or mock your toddler for their feelings. Be mindful to not smile or laugh at them, sigh or huff, or tell them they’re being silly. This may even make your child more afraid, especially if their fear is based partly on feeling out of control or powerless.
You can reassure them, but do it in a way that is respectful. It can also help to let your toddler know that you understand why they’re afraid, and that fear is a normal and healthy reaction to a scary or new situation.
Let Them Work Through Their Fears
It may seem counterintuitive, but for many toddlers, seemingly dwelling on their fear may help them to get over it. Some children will want to talk about their fear with you very often, sometimes even bringing it up in seemingly unrelated conversations. If this happens, listen carefully to them and help guide them through the conversation.
Some children may draw their fears or act it out while they’re playing. If they’re afraid of thunderstorms, they may imitate the sound of thunder, draw images of lightning bolts and rain, and even play out their worst fears with their stuffed animals.
The same way many adults will brainstorm a solution to a worrying problem in as many ways as they can (by talking it out with friends, researching articles on it, or even watching movies that deal with the topic), your toddler may use all their processing tools available to try to work out their fear.
Help Them Label Their Fear
Just like an adult often cannot solve a problem until they can clearly name what the problem is, your toddler may cope with their fear easier once it’s been clearly put into words. Instead of just a great big, overwhelming feeling, it can become something specific and small.
Ask your child questions (“What are you feeling?” “What do you think will happen?”) until they’ve narrowed down what their fear is. Once it’s appropriately labeled (“I’m afraid the thunder can hurt me,” “I’m afraid when you leave you’ll never come back,” etc.), the fear may feel less personal to your child; they may even find themselves slightly disconnected from it.
Plus, once you know just what your child’s fears are, you have a much better chance of knowing how to help them past their fear. It’s very difficult to help a child get over a fear if it’s not obvious exactly what that fear is.
Guide Your Child Through Exposures
One of the best ways to move past a fear is through repeated exposures to the fear. When your toddler has repeated proof that they’ll be okay when confronting their fear, their phobia should begin to lessen.
You’ll want to start small and build up (sometimes even starting from total avoidance and slowly building up to exposures). If your child is afraid of getting a haircut, you can let them watch you get a haircut. If your toddler is scared of the doctor, let them visit the office when they don’t have an appointment.
Books, videos, and even simply playing pretend together can also be great exposure tools. If your child is afraid of dogs, you can watch funny videos of puppies, play with a dog stuffed animal, and watch cartoons where the dogs are friendly as you slowly build up to actually visiting puppies.
Ask Your Child What May Help
Many times, part of the fear toddlers feel is due to their perceived total lack of control in their own life. They may feel helpless, overwhelmed, or like they have no say in what happens to them.
When your child expresses a fear, ask them directly what they think will help them. This can vary from child to child, so it can help you to calm your child’s anxieties in the way that works best for them. For instance, some children may want a nightlight to deal with the dark, some will want their doors cracked, and some may simply need a stuffed animal to “protect” them.
As an added bonus, this can help your toddler feel a sense of authority and control in their own life, which can be very empowering and help them overcome their fears.
Be Honest With Your Child
While it may be tempting to tell your child a white lie in order to help them feel more comfortable, in the long run, this can be very harmful.
If your child is terrified that getting a shot will hurt, and you promise them that it won’t, when they do feel pain, they may feel incredibly betrayed by you. In these cases, it’s best to be honest with them, but help them come up with coping strategies.
Reassure them that you’ll be with them at the doctor, that the pain is quick and they’ll feel better soon, and remind them that the shot will help keep them healthy and strong. Praise your child when they face their fears, and even consider offering them a reward for going through with it (like watching their favourite movie with you).
Don’t Be Afraid to Get Help
While fear is a normal part of being a toddler, there are times when a child’s phobias or anxieties can be unhealthy. If your toddler is so afraid that it disrupts their daily life, if they’re impossible to calm once they’re upset, or if their fears are getting worse instead of getting better, there’s no shame in getting help.
By taking your child to their doctor or a therapist, you can help be sure that you’re getting your child all the help they need to be as healthy and happy as possible.
Remember, going to a professional for help does not reflect poorly on your parenting or on your child. Mental and emotional health, even in a toddler, should be treated just as seriously as physical health and visiting a doctor, if you think there may be a problem, can do a world of good for your child.
A scared toddler can be a heartbreaking thing to see, but with the right mindset and a lot of love, you can help soothe your child and ease their phobias. Fear is a normal, healthy part of your toddler’s development; be ready to be there for them and help make their world a less scary place.