We all have fears. Our fears can be an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat. Fear is a vital response to physical and emotional danger — if we didn’t feel it, we couldn’t protect ourselves from legitimate threats. But often we fear situations that are far from life-or-death, and thus we stay stagnated and lose out on many things in our lives.
Children too have fears, some normal and some are cause for concern. It is normal for all children to have specific fears at some point in their childhood. Even the tuff kid who tries to dive off the coffee table pretending to be superman, will experience fear in some way. As children learn more about the world, some things will become more confusing and frightening. This is nothing at all to worry about and these fears will usually disappear on their own as your child grows and expands his or her experience.
In the meantime, it is beneficial to be aware of the “normal” fears in each stage of development, allowing parents to help in guiding their child through the different fears’ children might experience.
When children experience fear, it represents that that the child is starting to understand the world and the way it works, and that they are trying to make sense of what it means for them. With time and experience, they will come to figure out for themselves that the things that seem scary aren’t so scary after all. Over time, they will also realize that they have an incredible capacity to cope, leading them to a high sense of self.
Fears can certainly cause a lot of cause distress for children and teenagers as well as the people who care for and love them. It’s important to remember that fears at certain ages are completely appropriate and in no way are a sign of abnormality.
When a fear is present, it is real to the person experiencing the fear. Some kids and teens will experience fears that are more intense and intrusive. Even fears that seem quite odd at first, will make sense in some way and at times escalate for various reasons.
For example, a child who does not want to be separated from you (8 – 10 months) is out of what they see as the norm. You not being right there causes a sense of panic or fear because it is out of the norm for them. This is a developmental stage that will cease once the child understands you will be returning, and they can feel comfortable without you. A child who fears balloons would have probably experienced that jarring, terrifying panic that comes with the boom. It can be a horrifying feeling, and as adults, we realize the feeling generally passes within moments. On the other hand, for a child who is still getting used to the world, the threat of that panicked feeling can be overwhelming.
Worry becomes a problem when your child’s life seems to be consumed around the worry or fear. When the fear seems to direct most of your child’s behavior or the day to day life of the family (sleep, family outings, routines, going to school, friendships). It is likely the child is either using the fear as manipulation (time to go to sleep) or the fear is what the child sees as normal in their life. If you are perplexed or feel the child is “using” the “fear” to deflect things they don’t want to do, is time to seek a professional for assistance. Many times, when the adult “feeds” the fear by spending way too much time explaining, cuddling, or allowing fear to involve the daily life of the family. Many times, when parents affirm the fear, the child begins to believe they need to be fearful and will continue feeling this way. Comforting the child and moving forward without feeding the fear, exhibits confidence in the adult and most children will follow in time.
The idea then, isn’t to get rid of all fears completely, but to make them manageable. The adults in a child’s life can help guide them through the fear with exhibiting their own trust, sense of safety, confidence, and calmness. Eventually, when the adults set up this environment, the familiarity and sense of peace will overcome the fear.
An Age by Age Guide to Fears
When you are looking through the list, look around your child’s age group as well. Children are all different on some levels. Either circumstances, environment, development, or the conditions surrounding the child. Most of the time, there is no need to panic or worry if your child isn’t on task in the development process. The list is a guide to common fears during childhood and the general age at which they might appear. There are no steadfast rules though and they might appear earlier or later.
Infants and toddlers (0-2)
- Loud noises. Basically, anything that might overload their senses (storms, the vacuum cleaner, blender, hair dryer, balloons bursting, doors slamming, sirens, the bath draining, abrupt movement, being put down too quickly). When babies are born, their nervous systems are the baby versions. When there is too much information coming to them through their senses, such as a loud noise or being put down too quickly (which might make them feel like they’re falling), it’s too much for their nervous systems to handle.
- Being separated from you. At around 8-10 months, babies become aware that when things disappear, those things still exist. Before this, it tends to be ‘out of sight, out of mind’. From around 8 months, they will start to realize that when you leave the room you are somewhere, just not somewhere they can see you. This may be the start of them fearing being separated from you, as they contend with where you’ve gone, and when you’ll be coming back. During their second year, they begin to understand how much they rely on your love and protection. For a while, their worlds will start and end with you.
- Strangers. An awareness of strangers will peak at around 6-8 months. This is a good thing because it means they are starting to recognize the difference between familiar and unfamiliar faces. By this age, babies will have formed a close connection with the ones who take care of them. They will know the difference between you and the rest of the world, not only because of what you look like or the sound of your voice, but also because of what you mean for them. For many babies, strangers and ‘sort of strangers’ – actually anyone outside of their chosen few – will need to move gently. Babies will be sensitive to their personal space and will be easily scared by anyone who quickly and unexpectedly enters that space. At this age, separation anxiety and stranger anxiety can be a tough duo for any parent. Your little person doesn’t like being away from you, but they might not be too fond of the person you leave them in the care of. It can be tough but hang in there – it will eventually pass.
- People in costume. “Really? You are putting me in front of a big man in a red suit with a white beard that I’ve never seen before and you want me to sit on his lap? Nope. Not today.” Parents, remember, when you child associates the big man with brining presents, it will someday all change! Babies could care less about photos, they don’t think large life size bunnies, crazy looking clowns, or big men in red suits are cute or fun.
- Anything outside of their control. Overly energetic or barking dogs, a flushing toilet, thunder, door slamming, etcetera. Around the age of one, when your child starts to take little steps, he or she will start to experiment with their independence. This might look like moving small distances away from you or wanting to play with their food or feed themselves. With this, comes an increasing need for them to have a sense of predictability and control over their environment. Anything that feels outside of their control might seem frightening.
- Sounds and things that don’t make sense. Lightning, loud noises (the bath draining, thunder, balloons bursting, fireworks, loud barking dogs, trains) and anything else that doesn’t make sense. Kids begin to be aware of their lack of control in the world. Because of this, they might show a fear of things that seem perfectly innocent to the rest of us to make no sense at all to a grown up.
- Event, people, or circumstances out of the norm. This could be anything or anyone who has changed something about themselves. A neighbor with a new beard, a grandparent with different colored hair, or a family member dressed in a Halloween costume…Anything unexpected causing surprise, uneasiness, or oddity. It’s hard enough when strangers are strangers, but when favorite people look like strangers … Ugh. Familiarity is the stuff that creates happy days.
- “Pretend” things, people, or items. Older kids, and of course, adults know when something is not real or pretend. It could be scary noises, Halloween costumes, ghosts, witches, monsters living under the bed, bad guys living in the closet, and anything else that feeds their imaginations. Their imaginative play is flourishing, and their imaginations are wonderfully rich. At this age, they tend to have trouble telling the difference between fantasy and reality.
- Things seen on devices, television, cartoons, or books. The things they see on television or read in books might fuel their already vivid imaginations and come out as scary dreams. This might bring on a fear of the dark or being alone at night. At this age, kids can struggle a little to separate fantasy from reality. If they hear a story about a pirate for example, as soon as the lights are out, they might imagine Captain-Russell-With-The-Boat-Who-Steals-Toys-From-Sleeping-Kids is waiting under their bed, ready to cause trouble. A calming bedtime routine and happy, pirate-free stories can help to bring on a much more peaceful night of sleep.
- People in costume. Most of us have experienced this with a child, they see Santa, the Easter Bunny, story or cartoon characters and they scream as if someone has put their feet on burning coals. At this age, grown-ups in dress-ups are no more adorable than they were in the baby days.
- Being separated from familiar people. Being away from a parent, family member, or caregiver. They might worry that something will happen to themselves, the people they love, particularly if something happens to someone close to them.
- The dark and being on their own at night. This can bae triggered by hearing a strange sound or seeing unfamiliar lights or shadows on the walls. The dark can feel scary at this age. With their imaginations running wild and free, they might put their own explanations to strange night-time noises or shadows on the wall. They might convince themselves that the sound of a moth hitting a lightbulb is a robber, because no other explanation makes any sense.
- Being separated from you. At this age, children might show a strong reaction to being separated from one or either or their parents. This comes as they start to see outside of themselves and realize that bad things can happen to the people they love. They might want to avoid school or sleepovers, so they can be with you and know that you’re safe and sound. They can worry about what you are going to do all day without them by your side.
- Imaginary characters. This could be ghosts, monsters, witches, cartoon character, or anything that runs around in their minds. This can also show itself as a fear of the dark when a child is alone in bed with a vivid imagination. Their imaginations are still hard at work so anything they can bring to life in there will be fuel for fear.
- Real Events. Kids hear way too much from television, devices, social media, other kids, and people about bad things happening in the world. This can manifest to a child of this age into fears of getting lost, getting sick, a stranger taking them, a parent being sick or hurt, or the other hundreds of things they hear about. As well as fearing things they create in their imagination, they might also become scared of things could happen.These are the sorts of things that might unsettle all of us from time to time.
- Nightmares and bad dreams. Because of the blurred line between fantasy and reality, bad dreams can feel very real and are likely to peak at this age.
- Fire, wind, thunder, lightning – anything that seems to come from nowhere. They are still trying to grasp cause and effect and their minds are curious and powerful. They might scare themselves trying to explain where scary things come from. Lightning might mean the sky is about to catch fire. Thunder could be God being angry with them, a siren is 911 going to help someone they know and love.
- Imaginary shadows on walls. Monsters, witches, ghosts, shadows on the wall at night. This can be caused by suddenly being awakened, a scary movie, not being able to sleep one night, or something they have read or heard about that is scary. Though their thinking is more concrete, children at this age will still have a very vivid imagination.
- Being at home alone. Kids this age are still learning to trust the world and their capacity to cope with small periods of time on their own, without you. Staying at home alone might be exciting, scary or both – then there’s that imagination of theirs that might still ambush them at times. They want to show independence yet many times, they will begin to imagine something scary they have heard about, read, or seen and create this scenario in their own minds when home alone.
- Loss of loved one. Getting ill. Something happening to themselves, the people they care about or a family pet. They start to understand that death affects everyone at some point and that it’s permanent. They might start to worry about what they know to be reality. They understand permanence and may fear losing someone they love.
- Rejection. Being rejected, not liked, or judged by their peers is paramount during this age. Acceptance and being part of a group is their sense of identity. Being involved in a team sport, club, group at school is important at this age. Rejection is feared. Kids see other kids who are not accepted at this age and know they too can be rejected. Kids fear being made fun of or bullied if they are different or not like the “popular kids”. Basing their self-esteem on acceptance and being liked is prominent at this age. This can show up at any age, but it might ramp up or towards the end of these years. This is because they will start to have an increased dependence on their friendships as they gear up for adolescence.
- Peer acceptance. Kids at this age worry about what their peers are thinking of them. Acceptance is of vital importance. One of the primary developmental goals of adolescence is figuring out how they are and where they fit into the world. As they do this, they will start to worry about what other people think. They also have the job of moving towards independence from you. What their friends think will take on a new importance as they start to make the move away from their family tribe and towards their peers. Kids at this age love and need their parents and begin expecting them to be there when they need them but want them to back off until they ask for help. Their dependency on parents will shift. This is healthy and important, transitioning from dependence to independence. Most of the time, it feels like a tug a war, where the parent doesn’t know when the adolescent needs them and when they don’t.
- Loss or sickness. At this age, kids have been exposed to reality on a regular basis. They know people get sick, hurt, and sometimes die. They fear losing someone they know or love. The emotions and hormones are working double time, so feelings are intensified. Most adolescents fear something happening to them. Sickness, being hurt, or maimed. Even though during adolescence, they will be particularly prone to taking silly risks, they don’t comprehend they could hurt themselves. It’s all part of them extending into the world and learning what they are capable of. What’s important is keeping their fear at a level that it doesn’t get in the way of them being brave, learning new things, and finding safe ways to discover what they’re capable of.
- School performance. There is a tremendous amount of emphasis today on grades, school, advanced classes, exams, failure, finals, rank in class, college admittance, choosing college, SAT/ACT scores, getting into college, career paths, finances for college, and plans for the future. Our society, families, and parents sometime place stress and worry on kids of this age and then, there are kids who place the stress and worry on themselves. Adolescents have a difficult time seeing the future after high-school or college and many times feel they must know what their future holds. Competition is high at this age and many times, kids of this age place unneeded pressure on themselves. The desire to be perfect or to please others can cause high amounts of anxiety at this age.
- Reality. Sadly, kids today are aware of the horrifying events happening in our country and world. They are faced with fears most of us have never had when we were growing up. Fears of people breaking in their homes, racism, being hurt or killed, being assaulted or raped, war, terrorism, gang violence, school shootings, bullying, being kidnapped, and natural disasters are some of the few fears of adolescents. They realize that bad things happen yet, they don’t understand the likelihood and the rarity of such events. With their increasing time on social media, they will tend to hear about bad news more often and come to believe that the risk of it happening to them is greater than it is. Again, emotions and hormones are surging their bodies and what an adult sees as a fleeing feeling can escalate to an extreme fear or emergency to an adolescent and this same fear can be gone by nightfall.
- Sharing their feelings or life with an adult. Talking to a parent, authority figure or adult about important personal issues is extremely scary to an adolescent. Adolescents do not want to be judged, bossed, lectured to, or to look “stupid” or “childish”. They are trying to learn how to need their parent less and are in a stage of wanting to be independent, yet they need the adults in their life for certain things. It’s their job during adolescence to learn how to need you less. They may not show it, but adolescents want parents, teachers, coaches, and family members to be proud of them and they don’t want to disappoint them. They fear their ideas, feelings, thoughts and opinions may not be accepted or approved of.
- Missing out. Peers are vitally important to adolescents. The “friend group” they are in, the party they are asked to, if they are popular, are they “hot”, good athlete, in A.P. classes, their GPA, which team they belong to, a cheerleader or on dance team, in band, what they drive, what they wear, who they hang out with, and how much money their parents have are a few of the things some adolescents feel are important. Being connected to their friends and being a part of what’s going on in their friendship group can feel like a matter of life or death. It sounds dramatic and for them, it is – but there is a good reason for this. For all mammals throughout history and in nature, exclusion from the tribe means has meant almost certain death. For our adolescents, that’s how it feels when they feel on their outside of their tribe – it feels like death. In time they will learn that they will still feel connected to their friends even if they aren’t a part of everything that happens.
Part Two: How to Handle Your Kids Fears…