top of page

Childhood Fears



“There’s a monster under my bed!” “I have to speak in front of the WHOLE class! “It’s going to hurt!”


Our nervous systems are cued to scan our environment for signals of safety or threat. Our children can perceive, understand, and experience these threats differently as they develop. Evidence suggests that fear learning in children is both biological and learned through observation of fear responses in those around them, particularly attachment figures. 


Fears are commonly encountered throughout childhood, with infants as young as six months of age demonstrating physiological and behavioural signs of fear. Common fears associated with infancy and toddlerhood include separation from caregivers, unfamiliar people, and loud noises. Younger children may fear being alone, physical harm, and being separated from a caregiver. Their exploding imaginations can create rich environments for fears associated with the dark or monsters as they struggle to distinguish reality from fantasy. Very often fears at this age are expressed at certain times of day or at certain events. As children’s cognitive and social development allows them to separate fantasy from reality and gain more control and predictability within their environment, some of these common developmental fears may begin to fade. 


Older children may begin to fear events that might happen in real life such as harm to people they love, natural disasters, violence, or events they learn of through the media. Preteens and teens identify strongly through academic and social settings and find many of their fears associated with school performance, peer perceptions and fitting in, in addition to wide reaching matters of injustice, climate change, and economic disparity.


How can parents and caregivers respond to childhood fears? 

Very often our children will seek to avoid further experience with the source of their fears. While avoidance may be appropriate for some fears (for example, avoiding scary movies), providing our children with the structure and support to face fears of commonly encountered life experiences in small manageable steps can increase their confidence and ultimately help them reduce their fears.


The following are some approaches to support your child as they face commonly encountered fears: 


Validate: Demonstrating your awareness of the impact of this experience and the way your child is feeling is important in maintaining the safety in your relationship. While the fear may seem difficult to understand as an adult, it feels real to your child. It is valuable to demonstrate empathy without agreeing with their fears. For example, “I hear that you’re scared about going to the dentist. It is ok to feel scared. It’s important to keep your teeth healthy. I know you can open your mouth to get your teeth checked. I’m with you and am going to help you figure out what you need”.  


Self-Regulation: While we often wish to soothe our children’s distress, there is value in helping our children learn to develop their ability to tolerate distressing emotions while in the safety of relationship. This is a skill that takes continued practice.


Modeling: Children seek cues from our responses as parents. Strive to model emotional regulation to help your child remain calm when faced with their fears. Be mindful of your tone, body language, and facial expressions when your child is fearful. 


Explore: Explore what your child is afraid of, being mindful of the language used as you explore it together. Try to avoid negatively charged language. For example, “Do you think the dog was surprised?” versus “The scary dog”. 


Empower: After providing validation of feelings, reinforce how you will work together to plan how to increasingly step into continued bravery to manage their fears with increasing independence. Setting small, reasonable goals that are likely to be successful is often helpful. Express your confidence in your child’s ability and your encouragement of the steps they take.


Curiosity:  Provide truthful answers to their questions that are appropriate to their developmental level. Encourage your child’s continued questions, interest, and suggestions once distanced from heightened distressing feelings. 


If you find that your child’s fears are interfering with their day-to-day activities, disrupting their ability to learn, or ability to interact socially, you may find it valuable to seek guidance from your physician or reach out to a therapist for support.


References

  •  Marin, M., Bilodeu-Houle, A., Morand-Beaulieu, S., Brouillard, A., Herringa, R. J., & Milad, M. R. (2020). Vicarious conditioned fear acquisition and extinction in child-parent dyads. Scientific Reports, 10: 17130. https://doi.org/10/1038/s41598-020-74170-1 

  • Silvers, J. A., Callghan, B. L., VanTieghem, M., Choy, T., O’Sullivan, K., & Tottenham, N. (2020). An exploration of amygdala-prefrontal mechanisms in the intergenerational transmission of learned fear. Developmental Science, 24: e13056.

  • National Scientific Council on the Developing Child: Harvard University. (2010). Persistent fear and anxiety can affect young children’s learning and development. Working Paper No. 9. http://www.developingchild.net

  • Casline, E. P., Pella, J., Zheng, D., Harel, O., Drake, K. L., & Ginsburg, G. S. (2018). Parental responses to children’s avoidance in fear-provoking situations: Relation to child anxiety and mediators of intervention response. Child Youth Care Forum, 47, 443-462.

  • Goldstein, C. (2023, November 13). What to do (and not do) when children are anxious. Child Mind Institute. https://childmind.org/article/what-to-do-and-not-do-when-children-are-anxious/

  • Jacobson, R., Platt, E, & Busman, R. (2024, January 30). How to help children manage fears. Child Mind Institute. https://childmind.org/article/help-children-manage-fears/

  • Tahilani, K. & Herrington, J. D. (2021, May 21). Tackling irrational fears in children and teens. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. https://www.chop.edu/news/health-tip/tackling-irrational-fears-children-and-teens


17 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page