Fears are a normal part of childhood because fear is an innate,
protective response to situations or objects which appear threatening
or dangerous. Fear is a useful emotion for the survival of the
individual and the species, and even very young babies will show a
startle reaction and distress to an event like a sudden loud
JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY
To understand the nature of children's fears, it is helpful
to think of childhood as a journey through unknown territory. As
babies move from the security of their mothers' arms, begin to crawl
around the lounge, then toddle off into the uncharted regions of the
back yard, they gradually push back the frontiers of the safe and
familiar. Along the way they encounter strange and potentially
dangerous situations and objects - steps, heaters, dogs, darkness,
noisy machines, unfamiliar adults - learning as they go (a) how to
deal with them, and (b) not to be afraid of them. This learning
process continues through childhood, with each new experience
teaching the child more about the world, and reducing their fear of
the unfamiliar and threatening.
KINDS OF FEARS
Almost all children experience fear at some stage in their
development, and it is interesting that they tend to experience
similar fears at similar ages.
Typical fears can be grouped into three main
Environmental fears are understandable anxieties about real
things such as animals, thunder, the dark, and burglars.
Imaginary fears are worries about things such as ghosts and
monsters from stories and movies.
Social fears are anxieties about social situations such as
being separated from Mum, being left at preschool, starting school,
and joining a sports or some other group for the first time.
These three groups tend to follow a rough chronological
order, with toddlers and preschoolers more prone to environmental
fears, older preschoolers and early primary school children more
likely to experience imaginary fears, and social fears persisting
through to the teenage years and beyond. For example, not many adults
are scared of the dark, but there are plenty who would feel anxious
about speaking in front of an audience.
Children's fears also tend to become more realistic as they
grow older. For example, one survey of Australian teenagers showed
that their greatest fear was of nuclear war, followed by being in a
car accident or fire, falling from a high place, and encounters with
a burglar, snake, or poisonous spider.
DEALING WITH FEARS
Most parents seem to follow almost instinctively the basic
principles which have been shown to be effective in dealing with
If at all possible, prepare your child for an experience
which they might find frightening. If you see the lightning flash,
tell them that a loud bang is coming. For children who have to go to
hospital, give them as much information as possible about what is
going to happen. There is no doubt that knowledge inoculates against
Through your own behaviour, model or demonstrate the way you
would like your child to respond to a potentially scary
Appropriate modelling helps in three ways. Firstly, it shows
your child what to do in the situation, which increases his own
confidence about being able to handle it and cope with it. Secondly,
it shows him that nothing bad is going to happen to him. Thirdly, it
teaches him the lesson that even if you are feeling a bit scared,
facing your fear is the best way to deal with it.
It is important to keep your own anxieties under wraps,
especially if you know that your own fears tend to be unrealistic or
excessive. Children can be taught to be afraid of things, which they
would otherwise happily deal with, by observing their parents'
3 Gradual exposure
If your child has a particular fear, help her to overcome it
by exposing her to it in gradual steps, from least to most scary. For
example, if she is afraid of dogs, start with pictures of dogs, then
observing dogs at a distance, then patting a small, quiet dog, then
patting and stroking bigger, passive dogs. Fear of separation can be
dealt with by gradually increasing the time you are away, from five
minutes through to a few hours.
Graduated exposure to the feared object or situation is more
likely to be successful than "throwing in at the deep end", which
runs the risk of increasing a child's anxiety about the situation.
Let your child set the pace by choosing what the next step will be in
confronting their fear. Progress will be more rapid if he stays
within his comfort zone as he moves from step to step.
Highlight and praise the progress your child is making in
dealing with his fears. Reinforce the message that he is being very
brave, because in doing so you are making the quality of being brave
a part of his self-image, which will help him to deal with future
A small percentage of children seem to be fearful by nature
or temperament. From an early age their usual response to new
situations tends to be avoidance or withdrawal, and they seem to be
generally more worried and anxious than other children.
Temperamentally anxious children present a special challenge
to parents who want them to take part with confidence in the usual
range of childhood activities. Despite their best intentions, parents
can become exasperated and impatient with their children's anxieties
and clinginess, a reaction which tends to make the problem worse.
Chronically anxious children, who are sometimes described as
being "shy", simply find it hard to do the things that other children
take in their stride, particularly in regard to social activities. In
order to help their shy child, parents need to;
- accept that their child has a genuine problem, and is
not just being difficult for the sake of it
- adjust their expectations for social competence to a level
closer to what their child is able to achieve
- find the delicate balance of encouraging and supporting their
child to try new activitieswithout placing them under the constant
pressure of being forced to do things that don't come
- use the procedures for dealing with specific fears outlined
above seek professional help from a child psychologist if their
child's enjoyment of life is being significantly impaired by the
severity of their general shyness or more specific