0 to 2: "Bad Man!"

by Caria Poole

Two-month-old Emma has just fallen asleep, when a loud siren goes off outside the window. The baby's arms flail upward as she spasms into a startle reflex and cries out. Emma's teacher responds to her fearful cry and gently scoops her up. Babies are born with reflexes-self-protective reactions to loud sounds, sudden movements, and sensations. These reflexes, which fade as the infant matures, alert caring adults. Repeated loving responses help babies trust that nurturing adults will help them manage their fear and distress.

Experiencing Stranger Anxiety

A common fear during infancy is stranger anxiety, or a heightened awareness of strangers, which peaks at around 6 to 8 months. Babies have, by then, formed intimate relationships with people who care for them. Unfamiliar people will stand out, and babies will be sensitive to their personal space. If an unfamiliar person rushes up to an 8-month-old with an energetic hello, he may receive a wail of a response! Ask him to speak softly, from a comfortable distance. One must adjust to each baby's unique personality and wait until the baby gives a signal. Eye contact or a gesture toward the new person will signal that the baby is ready to interact.

Growing Awareness

During the second year, the toddler has a surge in his understanding of how dependent he is on the love and protection of significant adults. As a result, fear of being separated from loved ones may increase and he will need patient reassurance.

Understanding Cause and Effect

Sometimes toddlers have unrealistic fears based on their limited understanding of cause and effect. For example, the toddler might see water and soap suds going down the drain and think that he might disappear down the drain, too!

Although toddler language is limited, listen carefully and ask simple questions. Respect and accept the toddler's unrealistic fear by saying, "I know you are afraid. I will be here if you need me to help you," or, "I'll keep you safe."

Introducing New Experiences

Since the toddler is just beginning to understand how the world works, new experiences may be frightening. Use simple and clear language to describe new experiences beforehand. Try to blend the familiar with the unfamiliar. If a toddler is using an unfamiliar play space, for instance, couple the experience with a familiar friend. Then give him time to adjust.

Using Play to Manage Fears

Two-year-olds begin to use play to manage their fears. For example, 2 ½-year-old Sammy recently became scared about bad monsters. As a result, during his pretend play, he becomes the scary monster. Being "in charge" of the monster helps him to manage his fear. Sometimes children relive scary events during their play. Children let go of lingering anxiety by "playing it out." Provide a safe and structured setting, but let them play independently. Allow them to develop the "script." Fear is a difficult but useful emotion. It triggers bursts of adrenaline, which help to keep children safe. Learning to manage these powerful feelings is a lifelong process.

What You Can Do:

  • Tune in to temperaments. Some toddlers enjoy new people, places, and things, while others take longer to warm up. Respect each style, adapting to children's personalities.
  • Accept toddlers' angry feelings. Fear and aggression can be closely related. Help toddlers express and manage both feelings.

3 to 4: "It's Too Dark!"

by Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.

Three-year-old Shana's class had recently read and acted out "The Three Billy Goats Gruff." A week later, a trip was planned to the petting zoo. When Shana saw the goats, she started to cry uncontrollably. Shana's teacher took a minute to try to understand what was going on. Ah, yes! Didn't one of the goats in the story butt someone into the monster troll's mouth? Threes often find it difficult to separate fantasy from reality.

Frightened by the Unfamiliar

There is so much going on in the world of a 3-year-old-so much mastery, so many things they've already become familiar with. At the same time, however, children this age may be disturbed by characteristics they find unfamiliar. Jessie cries when his teacher comes back after winter break with a beard. He may also be afraid of a bleeding cut, hide his eyes from the cast on a friend's arm, or tell the teacher to throw away that broken toy. None of these fit the familiar concept of whole, and that's scary!

Common Anxieties and Reactions

At about 3 ½, children often develop a variety of insecurities and physical ways of showing them. Fear of the dark and nightmares are common and may last quite a while. Hands may tremble. Children may suck their fingers or develop nervous tics. Verbal reassurances from important adults, along with security blankets and other special comfort items, can help allay fears and build confidence.

It's Not Easy Being 4!

Because of heightened imaginations, 4-year-olds' fears can become magnified. Often, when one fear subsides, another takes its place. Although many fears are specific to an individual child, some seem to be very typical for this age group-fear of strange animals, bathtub drains, fire, thunder and lightning, snakes, and bugs. A fear of shadows and moving lights on a wall can make bedtime and nap time scary times. At 4, many children are afraid that if a grandparent or a pet dies, they'll die, too.

Often, fueled by programs seen on television, children's fantasy fears, such as ghosts, dragons, and supernatural characters, find their way into the preschooler's play and dreams. Fear of intangible things-for example, being abandoned-may also increase.

Preschoolers learn some of their fears from observing or listening to others: Mommy cowers at the sight of spiders, for example. Other fears come about because of painful or scary personal experiences, such as being lost in a store. However, it's important to keep in mind that certain fears develop healthy anxieties. Fear of traffic, heights, power tools, biting animals, and fire can teach safety awareness and self-preservation, alerting preschoolers to danger.

As you help young children learn to deal with their fears, you are also helping them to feel in control of their lives.

What You Can Do:

  • Accept children's feelings. Try not to be judgmental. Let children know that you understand how they feel. Help them put their feelings about their fears into words.
  • Offer ways for children to express or calm their fears. Through dramatic play, children can feel empowered to work through their insecurities.
  • Help prepare children for situations they may find frightening. Read a story about going to the dentist, or ask a firefighter to visit the school and allow children to handle the equipment while you stand nearby for reassurance.
  • Try to determine the actual cause of the fear. The more you know (and the less you assume), the better able you'll be to help children work through their fears.

5 to 6: "Let's Get the Bad Guys!"

by Ellen Booth Church

It's a calm day in the classroom, but outside a storm is brewing. A huge clap of thunder startles the children! Some are truly frightened-shaking and crying. As Ms. Perrine responds with calm directions, reassurance, and hugs, the children settle in to watch the display.

Fearing the Unknown

In general, 5- and 6-year-olds are considerably less fearful than are 3- and 4-year-olds. However, kindergarten children can be scared of natural elements, such as fire, wind, and the dark. When children do not have a full understanding of the causes and effects of these elements, they can use their powerful 5- and 6-year-old minds to create both imaginary and real scenarios related to these fears.

Inviting Conversation

During fear-inducing situations, children need your calm directions and reassurance. The best way to help children deal with these fears is to provide them with information. For example, ask children what they know about thunder. Then provide them with more information about what it is and how to deal with it.

Managing Separation Issues

It is not unusual for 5-year-olds to still have fears about losing a parent. Separation issues that may or may not have occurred at the beginning of the school year may arise at the end of it. Children may become worried that their mom or dad won't pick them up or won't be there when they get home. They may even feel like they want to stay home instead of going to school. This is quite normal at this time of the year, and, with patience, it will pass quickly.

Acknowledging Fears

Children are at a stage of development when they may be worried about growing up and, instead, want to remain little! Often, this is related to the fear of going off to the "big" school and first grade. It is important to allow children to feel their fears, discuss them, and to even allow them to stay home for a day, if necessary. Children will quickly see that they are missing out on school experiences and friends.

Creating Pretend Scenarios

The 5- and 6-year-old years are a time when children become more aware of "bad people" in the world. Even if exposure to news, "action" TV, and movies is limited, children still hear about the violence in the world. These fears can become apparent to you when children come to school complaining of nightmares. They might also be surfacing when children engage in fighting with monsters and bad people during dramatic play. In kindergarten, superhero play can be a way for children to deal with these fears. Closely monitored dramatic play is a safe arena for children to "try on" these characteristics and work through fears.

What You Can Do:

  • Talk, talk, talk. Fears can grow when they are not examined and expressed. Encourage children to talk about them. Tell them about a fear you had as a child.
  • Include the study of commonly frightening natural events in your science units. The knowledge children gain about thunder, lightning, wind, etc., will help them deal with the fear.