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Rebecca Chicot PhD
Child development expert with a Phd from Cambridge University. She has worked on several best-selling books and BBC documentaries. She is the proud mother of three children.
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Stage 6 – preschool

Fears and anxiety

Fears and anxiety are part and parcel of the toddler years. Your toddler is learning so much about the world; trying to assess risk and his imagination is beginning to allow him to imagine monsters and scary things.  The good news is that you can make a big difference to the way your toddler handles his fears and anxieties.
In Short
Fears and anxiety are common in the toddler years as your toddler becomes mobile and explores the world.

Parents can help toddlers to conquer their fears by being a calm and available secure base from which to explore.

Anxiety is a normal part of toddler development.

Common fears of toddlers

There are some common culprits that cause fear in toddlers across the land. These fears include:

  • Fear of the dark.
  • Fear of monsters.
  • Fear of lightening and thunder.
  • Fear of strangers.
  • Separation anxiety.
  • Fear of being alone.
  • Fear of fireworks.
  • Fear of heights.
  • Fear of people in masks and costumes.
  • Fear of bearded men – including Santa.
  • Fear of dental and doctor’s appointments.
The function of fear in human behaviour

Fear and anxiety are found throughout the animal kingdom and serve as a survival instinct e.g. a lion poses a physical threat to life and our instinct is to feel extreme fear and escape.

We still retain some of these very ancient fears, such as a fear of snakes. For example, most toddlers in Europe haven’t seen a snake in the wild but if something slithers towards them they will instinctively jump with fright. The ‘cucumber fear meme’ in cats is basically because the ancient part of the brain reacts as if they’ve seen a snake.

The instinct is so ancient and deep root in the architecture of the brain that it is even observed in people with a damaged visual cortex. So how can it be that a ‘blind’ person and a toddler who has never seen a snake have this powerful aversion to the reptile? Well, it seems that it was incredibly important in our evolutionary past in Africa to flee quickly from snakes as one bite from e.g., a black mamba would kill a child quickly.

So there is a direct neural pathway (bypassing the visual cortex) from the optic nerve to the amygdala in the brain. So without seeing the snake our amygdala quickly boots up the flight or fight response so we can get away before the snake strikes.

Anxiety versus fear

Childhood fears are usually short-lived, predictable and don’t last forever e.g. monsters. Often very imaginative children suffer most with these fears as they are able to paint vivid and frightening scenarios in their minds. This can mean that anxieties and fears intensify as toddlers get older.

Children may know that the monsters aren’t real but their brain has already alerted the amygdala and their hearts still beat faster etc.

Anxiety is a more free floating and chronic experience. Anxiety disorders tend to run in families. This is for a number of reasons; partly genes (for some heritable anxiety disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder); partly modelling (if your Dad is terrified of dogs and displays fear when he sees them you may well learn a fearful response to dogs too) and partly parenting style (if your parent is inconsistent and not a stable base you are more likely to feel anxious).

There is an epidemic of anxiety disorders in children but they don’t tend to be diagnosed in toddlerhood.

Childhood phobias

Many phobias that people suffer from come from these ancestral survival imperatives, so a person safely up in a skyscraper may have a feeling of fear of the height even though they cannot be harmed.

Phobias are one kind of anxiety disorder that can completely take over a toddler’s life. However, the good news is that you can very quickly get rid of them in lots of cases.

My son developed a phobia of both dogs and wasps (after he was stung while alone for a moment in the garden as a toddler).

In both cases we were able to move him slowly from extreme fear, to moderate fear, to ambivalence to positive interest by a program of gradually increasing exposure. In the case of the dog phobia, he was jumped on and pinned to the ground by a (friendly) puppy in a field as a toddler. We first took him to see our neighbour’s dog Milligan while Milligan slept on the ground. Then he stroked Milligan’s back as he sat in my lap, then he stroked Milligan’s head – ‘the danger end’. The next step was to go on a walk with Milligan being kept on the lead with me holding the lead. My son soon wanted to hold the lead himself and finally, Milligan was off the lead and running around us and the phobia had gone!

Fears and anxiety milestones in your toddler’s development

There seems to be a rough timetable of common fears and anxieties which map the age and stage that your child is at. These fears reflect the new dangers they face when e.g., they become mobile.

Before your baby or toddler is truly mobile their main fears will be:

  • Abandonment or separation (as they cannot follow you).
  • Strangers (from around 9 months).
  • Loud noises or sudden movements (as it’s hard for them to flee).

Older toddlers

As your toddler’s brain develops is able to hold thoughts, ideas and concepts in their head – even when he does not perceive them. This leads to a new raft of fears including:

  • Nighttime darkness and noises.
  • Monsters.
  • Costumes and masks (they are not yet able to understand that a friendly person is behind them).
  • Beards – this helps explain the montages of toddler’s sobbing sat on Santa’s knee. Beards are a super stimulus of ‘maleness’ and are used in psychology experiments with small children to increase fear of strangers because a bearded stranger is more frightening to a child that than a woman or even a clean-shaven man.
  • Dogs, goats, horses, fowl (toddlers may be mobile but they are little and slow and these looming animals can make them feel very vulnerable).
  • Insects and spiders (especially stinging insects that bother them).
How to cope with your toddler’s fears

The more you can be a calm, consistent and sensitive parent as your toddler encounters these potentially frightening things the better. If you see they are frightened; get down to their level, provide lots of touch, cuddles and eye contact and always be willing to encounter the stimulus first to show them it’s okay e.g., holding a worm or stroking a friendly dog.

As your toddler gets older their environment expands they will continually face new fears and anxieties; whether at daycare, a day trip or as their brain develops.

Easing Fears

Whether these fears are a result of real experiences or imagined fears your toddler is not able to regulate his emotion and calm himself down so he does need your help. Try not to belittle his fears e.g., “Don’t be silly it’s only a dog!” or “Monsters don’t exist – so please just go upstairs and don’t turn the light on.’ He will need more help than that.

For example, a study by Kristin Lagattuta at Davis University found that 4-year-olds were able to tell the difference between things being real and imagined – unless it was associated with something fearful. When the emotion of fear was real they found it hard to determine whether or not the experience was real.

As with phobias (outlined above) you need to:

  • Respect their feeling of fear or anxiety.
  • Be sensitive to how they feel.
  • Let them overcome fear in explained, safe and planned small steps.

So if your toddler is scared of a wardrobe you need to break down the components – he doesn’t like the dark, being alone, the possibility of monsters. You can remove these aspects of the fear and reintroduce them when he has overcome the fear. So start with the lights on and you there.

Another great weapon against fear is laughter. When my children are scared of a person I always told them to imagine them sat on the toilet having a poo! I know it’s not very mature but has helped my children ever since they developed ‘toilet humour.’ If their language isn’t so developed just saying ‘silly monster with silly purple head’ in a cavalier fashion can help them to reframe the monster in their minds as unthreatening.

In my research with preschool children, I developed a ‘scary situation task’ which involved asking the mum to ask her child to reach into a large black box and retrieve rubber insects. The ‘low anxiety’ mums in the study had a winning formula that immediately made their child’s fear evaporate. Here are my tips based on the findings in this experiment.

  1. Always offer to take on the scary thing first.
  2. Act as your toddler’s human shield.
  3. Never ask him to do what you are afraid to do yourself – especially if you are displaying fear at the time.
  4. Don’t just deny that your toddler is afraid.
  5. Be calm and confident. How you talk to your toddler when he is scared is more important than what you say.
  6. When helping your toddler to deal with his fears work out his comfort zone.
  7. Don’t let your toddler completely avoid his fears all the time. This trains the brain that the anxiety is right and avoidance takes the scary thing away. Instead, make slow baby steps to gently cope with fears and anxieties e.g., “How about if I put my hand in to feel what’s inside and you hold my hand?”
Anxiety, fears and temperament

Toddlers come with different temperaments and you may find that your toddler is naturally more fearful and anxious.

Some toddlers are bold, while some are more timid and shy. Harvard developmental psychologist, Jerome Kagan, has found these differences in babies as young as three months old and often these temperamental differences between babies are fairly stable and persist. This dimension of temperament is called ‘behavioural inhibition’. Differences in behavioural inhibition seem to be largely down to the sensitivity of an individual’s amygdala. The amygdala is in the ancient reptile part of the brain and deals with immediate danger. If your senses perceive danger, such as a predator, the amygdala will light up and your fight or flight response will kick in. Studies of toddlers with high behavioural inhibition (and therefore who are more reserved and shy) found their amygdala was significantly more sensitive compared with their bolder counterparts who display low behavioural inhibition.

Kagan tested children’s behavioural inhibition with a range of stimuli, such as bright flashing robots and strangers. Toddlers who are timid and fearful of the stimuli at a young age seem to remain so even when tested several years later in longitudinal studies. The same was generally true for the bold infants – when they returned to the lab years later they were still bold and their amygdala didn’t seem to fire to incite a fight or flight response with many of the stimuli that they came across in the lab.

Once you get to know your baby, you’ll begin to get an idea of their temperament and the things that they like and don’t like. Over time, you will get a greater appreciation of your child’s unique personality and temperament. Although you shouldn’t stereotype or pigeonhole your child, it is helpful and sensitive to understand and make allowances for your toddler’s temperament. This is true if they are shy and timid and is also true if they are bold or clumsy. All toddlers will experience anxiety and fear but if you learn what situations or stimuli (e.g., loud dogs) make your toddler fearful you can begin to help her to overcome fears and build her confidence in you and herself.

I notice balloons at 50 paces because of Ava’s balloon phobia. I think one must have popped when she was about one as ever since she gets clingy and cries. At first, I’d just get rid of the balloon or take her away but with parties and what have you it was hard to avoid them. So my mum has started showing her empty balloons and blowing them up a tiny bit and letting them slowly go down. She’s much better now but she’s still a bit wary of them which is a shame as balloons are great…until they pop!
Real mum story. Polly, mum to Ava 2 years.
Quiz – Is my toddler bold or cautious (behavioural inhibition)?

1. You show your toddler a loud flashing toy. Does she:

a. Run towards it and pick it up.

b. Look to you for reassurance and then approach the toy cautiously.

c. Show fear of the toy and stay with you.

2. At a toddler music group, does your toddler:

a. Choose the loudest instrument and jump around happily in the middle of the group.

b. Happy to have an instrument but prefers to sit on your knee for the class.

c. Gets upset with the noise and may even cry and want to leave the class.

3. When a stranger talks to your toddler does she:

a. Respond and keep talking to the stranger, perhaps showing off and being loud and excited.

b. Look to reassurance before answering the stranger’s questions with short answers.

c. Avoid the stranger’s gaze and come back to you for reassurance.

4. You ask your toddler to reach into a box with a hole. Does she:

a. Reach straight in unfazed at pulling out the contents of the box.

b. Need some reassurance and will put her hands in the box with you.

c. Be very anxious and refuse to put her hands in or near the box.

5. You offer your toddler a new fruit to taste. Does she:

a. Take a bite straight away.

b. Need some reassurance and may take a small bite.

c. Refuse to try the fruit.

6. How does your toddler cope with strong smells e.g., bleach?

a. She doesn’t seem to notice.

b. She may show a disgust face.

c. She wrinkles up her nose and may even gag.

7. You take your toddler to a firework display. Does she:

a. Grin from ear to ear and seem entranced with the loud noises and bright lights.

b. Want to stay close to you and prefer the quieter fireworks. She may not want to watch a very long display.

c. Show real fear and cry and cling to you until she’s taken away from the display.

Mostly a’s: Your toddler displays lots of bold behaviour in a variety of situations and with different stimuli. She is not behaviourally inhibited.

Mostly b’s: Your toddler is neither very bold or very timid and she social references you and uses you as a secure base to give her confidence with new experiences.

Mostly c’s: Your toddler displays anxiety around a variety of novel situations and stimuli. She is behaviourally inhibited and her amygdala is probably sensitive to loud noises, strong smells and ‘scary’ situations.

Top tip: If your toddler refuses to do a physical feat you need to respect that. Do not force her or bribe her. Instead, adapt the feat next time so it is less difficult. Once she has mastered that feat e.g., climbing down from two ladder rungs, you can try to increase the challenge a little more each time. Your toddler will often try something if she’s just a success with that type of task.
References and further reading

Kagan, Snidman, Arcus & Resnick (1994) Galen’s prophecy: Temperament in human nature. New York, NY, US: Basic Books.

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This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Essential Parent has used all reasonable care in compiling the information from leading experts and institutions but makes no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details click here.