Childhood Fears and Worries
Do All Kids Have Fears and Worries?
It's normal for children to feel afraid or worried at times. These feelings can help kids be cautious. Things that are new, big, loud, or different can seem scary at first. Parents can help kids feel safe and learn to feel at ease.
What Do Kids Feel Afraid of?
What kids feel afraid of changes as they grow. Some fears are common at certain ages.
Infants feel stranger anxiety. When babies are about 8–9 months old, they can recognize the faces of people they know. That's why new faces can seem scary to them — even a new babysitter or relative. They may cry or cling to a parent to feel safe.
Toddlers feel separation anxiety. When they're 10 months–2 years old, many toddlers start to fear being apart from a parent. They don't want a parent to leave them at daycare, or at bedtime. They may cry, cling, and try to stay near their parent.
Young kids fear "pretend" things. Kids 4–6 years old can imagine and pretend. But they can't always tell what's real and what's not. To them, the scary monsters they imagine seem real. They fear what might be under their bed or in the closet. Many are afraid of the dark and at bedtime. Some are afraid of scary dreams. Young kids may also be afraid of loud noises, like thunder or fireworks.
Older kids may worry about getting hurt, weather, or danger. When kids are 7 or older, they know real from pretend. At this age, they may begin to fear things that could happen in real life. For example, some may fear being harmed by 'bad' people. Some may feel afraid about natural disasters, stormy weather, violence, or things they hear about in the media. Some may worry about family separations or losing a loved one.
Preteens and teens may have social fears. School and friendships have become a bigger part of their lives. They might feel anxious about homework, grades, and doing well in school. They may focus on how they look or worry about whether they will fit in, be judged, or be bullied. Social fears may cause them to feel anxious or afraid before they give a report in class, start a new school, take a big exam, play in a big game, or walk across the lunchroom. At this age, their worries and concerns may also focus on bigger issues — like the climate, injustice, and fairness.
How Can I Help When My Child Is Afraid?
When your child is afraid, here's how to help:
- Comfort your infant, toddler, or very young child by saying, "It's OK, you're safe, I'm here." Let your child know you're there to protect them. Give hugs and soothing words to help your child feel safe.
- As your child grows, talk and listen. Be calm and soothing. Help your child put feelings into words. Help kids try new things.
- Help your baby get used to a new person while you hold your baby and let your baby feel safe. Soon, the new person won't seem like a stranger anymore.
- Let your toddler be apart from you for short times at first. When you need to part from your child, say you'll be back, give a hug and a smile, and go. Let your child learn that you always come back.
- For a young child who's afraid of the dark, have a soothing bedtime routine. Read or sing to your child. Let them feel safe and loved.
- Help your child slowly face fears. You might make a list from easiest-to-deal-with to hardest-to-deal-with and start with the easiest. For example, check together for under-bed monsters. With you there to give support, let your child see that there's nothing to fear. Help your child feel brave, and praise them when they confront fears.
- Limit the scary images, movies, or shows kids see. These can cause fears.
- Help kids and teens learn to prepare for challenges, like tests or class reports. Let them know you believe in them.
- Schedules and routines ease worry about when and where activities will happen. Using clear schedules and setting expectations (with written chores, written rules, and very clear consequences) will help to reduce anxiety.
- Praise and reward kids for coping with anxious situations. When kids cope with a problem, offer praise and reassurance. This will help them learn that they can cope again in the future. Consider giving a small reward when kids cope with a problem situation.
- Don't cater to fears. If your child doesn't like dogs, don't cross the street deliberately to avoid one. This will just reinforce that dogs should be feared and avoided. Stay calm when your child is fearful. Then, provide support and gentle care as you approach the feared object or situation with your child.
Are My Child's Fears and Worries Normal, or Do We Need More Help?
Most kids cope with normal fears and worries with gentle support from their parent. As they grow, they get over fears they had at a younger age.
Some kids have a harder time and need more help with fears. If fears or worries are extreme or keep a child from doing normal things, it might be a sign of an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are often very treatable with the right help and support.
Talk to your doctor or a mental health provider if your child's fears:
- seem extreme or last past the normal age
- cause your child to be very upset or have tantrums
- keep your child from doing things — like going to school, sleeping alone, or being apart from you
- cause physical symptoms (like stomachaches, headaches, or a racing heart) or your child feels breathless, dizzy, or sick