My 3-year-old looks up from a bite of sushi. He looks nervously out the restaurant window at the encroaching darkness.
Then he looks down at his plate, at his favorite food, which he hasn’t finished eating.
He looks back at the window.
Even though he hasn’t said anything, I know what’s going on. He’s weighing the importance of two things he feels strongly about: inari, the meal he loves the most, and the dark, the thing he fears the most.
My 3-year-old isn’t alone. “Fifty-nine percent of children ages 2 to 6 have fears and phobias,” says Ursula Krentz, Ph.D., assistant professor of developmental psychology at Seattle Pacific University. “The most common ones are separation, the dark, baths, dogs, loud noises, imaginary monsters and change. As kids get more cognitively and emotionally mature, fears naturally occur.”
In this case, the fear wins. “I’m all done,” he says. He’s already inching out of the booth, toward the door. We finish the meal at home, after my son has locked both doors behind us, keeping the “scary things” outside. We’ve tried convincing him they aren’t real, but he’s not buying it.
Krentz explains why. “Preschoolers have a lot of trouble distinguishing between real and imaginary. They are fantasy driven; they believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and superheroes.”
As a result, a younger preschooler may not believe you when you try to convince him something isn’t real. “In fact, if they know the monster is there, and you insist that it isn’t, then that might be even more scary to them,” says Krentz. “Imagine being the only one who can see the monster!”
Logic and listening
Stephen Gillet and Melissa Schmoll, both teachers of preschool-age children at The Little School in Bellevue, agree. They encourage parents to help kids understand their feelings. “Listen to the child and acknowledge her fear. Let kids know talking about it is a good idea,” says Schmoll. “Simply stating that monsters aren’t real doesn’t really help kids process their fear and may communicate that they’re wrong to be afraid.”
But while younger kids may cling to their beliefs, older preschoolers may benefit from logic, Krentz says. “My 4-and-a-half-year-old gets that monsters and superheroes are pretend, and dinosaurs are real—and dead—without any problems.”
Sarah Nelson, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the mother of two boys, has seen her share of fears: dogs, new people, bleeding, swimming, vacuum cleaners and even the Cat in the Hat.
Nelson notes that while her boys’ specific fears have come and gone as they grow up, the fears are definitely related to their respective temperaments. “It’s clear that my older son is more fearful,” she says. Nelson thinks her parenting style has something to do with it. “I tend to hover, even when I don’t want to, which I think can increase fear and anxiety.”
When one son was afraid to take the training wheels off his bike, Nelson’s family found an unexpected solution. “He wouldn’t let us do it, but Grandma and Grandpa came into town and had him riding without training wheels in one day. I think parent/child relationships are so complex that sometimes it takes an outsider to help a child get over a fear.”
Krentz suggests parents help reduce their kids’ anxieties by gradually exposing them to the feared object (like the neighbor’s dog or the inside of the closet), teaching coping strategies like singing a song, and assuring them that mom and dad are strong and powerful and will protect them.
Religious families can talk about God or angels watching over them, says Krentz. Parents can also—like Krentz—use their own imaginations. Krentz has been known to set a monster trap and tape a “No monsters allowed” sign to the closet door.
Gillet and Schmoll like to get the kids involved. “We might ask, ‘What do you know about monsters? What makes monsters scary? Are monsters always mean? What could protect you from a monster?’” Schmoll says. “Asking a child questions such as ‘What would help you when you’re scared?’ ‘Do you want to hold a friend’s hand?’ helps the child take charge of scary feelings.”
Gradual exposure to a specific fear can also work, say Gillet and Schmoll. “One year, a child was unable to sit with the group while we sang a song about a ghost,” says Gillet. He progressed from asking that the song not be sung, to listening to it from the safety of his cubby across the room, to requesting the ghost song by the end of the year.
It helps kids to see their fears reflected in a story, says Krentz. She loves There Are Monsters Everywhere by Mercer Mayer, in which a kid is empowered to fight his invisible fears, and the ever-popular Llama Llama Red Pajama by Anna Dewdney, about a fear of the dark.
Even though fears at this age are very normal and developmentally appropriate, there are times to seek help, says Krentz. She recommends consulting a doctor if your child’s fears are causing physical pain, such as stomachaches or headaches, or interfering with everyday life, such as sleeping, bathing, eating or going to school.
External pressures can exacerbate fears. When dealing with a move or the start of school, “parents should probably give their child a little extra TLC and expect it to get better,” says Krentz. But if there is something more serious going on, such as marital strife, Krentz advises the whole family to see a marriage and family therapist. “But if things are just peachy at home, but little Johnny still worries incessantly, then they should go see a professional,” she says.
My husband and I are downstairs reading, the kids tucked into bed. It’s a rare quiet time—until we hear the soft patter of feet on the stairs.
“If you are going to stay up, can you watch out for my scary things for me?” my son asks. I resist the urge to say they aren’t there. Instead, I just say that yes, we will watch out. Mom and Dad are here. We will protect you.
Now go to sleep.
Wendy Lawrence is a longtime educator and former middle school head at Eastside Prep in Kirkland. Lawrence blogs about parenting and books at The Family That Reads Together.