“I’m scared!” (Tips for targeting specific fears)

“Fear is a friend who’s misunderstood” (John Mayer).  I’m not usually one for quotes, but sometimes I find that a well-timed mantra can get you through some of the trying situations that our children create for us.  Like the tenth monster check of the evening before sleep sets in.  For toddlers and preschoolers, fear is just one of the many emotions that occupies the day.  And, more often than not, their active imaginations play a large role in those fears.  Right on cue, at around age 3, Riley started having nightmares.  She also started verbalizing specific fears.  Once willing to greet any dog she passed, at 3 she decided that it’s better to keep walking.  Darkness became her biggest fear, but the night-lights intended to brighten her room a little then cast shadows.  Those were scary too.  A little anxiety is actually healthy. It reminds us to be careful when crossing the street or ask before touching an animal, no matter friendly it appears.  Anxiety warns us of pending danger and helps us cope with new, unfamiliar situations.  It’s usually somewhere between ages 3-4 that kids start to develop fears, but it can happen earlier.  Kids who have had more than average doctor visits might start to fear even routine check-ups, and little ones with parents overseas in the military might worry about the well being of their parents at an earlier age. Kids talk.  At the playground, at school, and even on playdates, kids talk.  They expose each other to new ideas.  The catch is that they don’t often have all of the details, so they rely on their very active imaginations to fill in the blanks.  This can lead to some significant worries.  Anxiety is considered pervasive when it affects most areas of their lives.  If your child is so afraid of the dark (and you’ve really, truly tried absolutely EVERYTHING and have been 100% consistent) that he/she can’t sleep at all, it will affect his/her ability to attend school, interact on playdates, or participate in classes.  That could be considered pervasive and you should probably check with your pediatrician.  But if your child is having a hard time separating at night, and maybe some nightmares on and off, that can be helped with a consistent reward chart, then it’s just a healthy fear.  The most common fears seen in toddlers and preschoolers are: Night/darkness/sleeping alone, shadows, death, dogs, using the potty, health/doctor visits, pain/being hurt, ghosts, monsters, and natural disasters. Most of these boil down to the age-old problems:  Lack of control and misunderstanding.  Repeat after me:  “Fear is a friend who’s misunderstood”.  Below are some tips to help you help your little ones cope with fears:

1. Acknowledge the fear: We all know that monsters don’t exist.  Our kids actually don’t know that.  Often times the first instinct is to solve the problem by saying, “monsters aren’t real so you shouldn’t be afraid of them”.  Unfortunately, kids are not easily convinced.  If Jimmy at school said that he has a monster under his bed, and he even described it in detail, then monsters must exist.  Kids need to feel validated.  Tell them that you understand. A better response (while running your mantra through your head) is, “it sounds like you are feeling pretty scared right now.  Maybe I can help you figure out what might seem scary and we can solve the problem together so that you can get some sleep”.  A quick check around the room to put away any stuffed animals strewn about while you remind your child that you will check on him often will often suffice.  At one point I let Riley determine how many checks I would do each night.  She always said 7.  I have a video monitor, so technically I didn’t even have to pretend!

2. Empathize: I have to be clear about one thing:  DON’T EVER TELL THEM YOUR FEARS!!! Empathy means conveying to your children that you understand what it feels like to feel scared or alone.  It doesn’t mean telling them that you are petrified of flying and that’s something you have to work on.  Kids want to know that they’re not alone.  Tell them that when you were three you worried about shadows too, but then you learned that shadows are just shapes made when light reflects upon objects.  Let them know their fears are normal.

3. Explain their fears: Books are great for helping kids dive into the unknown.  Books explain that ghosts and monsters are not real.  Books help children prepare for doctor visits, school, and various other anxiety-producing situations.  Rely on the library.  Provide explanations about how shadows are made.  Put on a shadow puppet show.  Talk honestly about the fact that many dogs are friendly and like to be touched, but some are not. Make a list of steps for the pending visit to the doctor.  Resist the urge to lie and say that there won’t be any shots, or that shots aren’t painful.  Instead say, “you have to get a shot today and will hurt a little when they give it to you”.  If you give them the information, they don’t have to rely on their imaginations to fill in the blanks.

4. Problem-solve together: “I know what I can do so I won’t be afraid, I’ll hold your hand!”  It’s a simple solution for sure, but Riley came up with it independently.  Because of that, she feels like she has more control.  When fears crop up, give your kids some control over the fear by coming up with a plan together.  We go through an alarming amount of Band Aids in this house because both of my kids insist on one for even the slightest bump.  It gives them a sense of control.  They fixed it.  For nighttime fears make a few suggestions:  A lovey to sleep with, a picture of mommy and daddy above the bed, an extra night-light.  Let them choose what works for them. Sometimes I feel like I’m dragging half of my house around town with me, but Liam needs certain cars and Riley always brings a stuffed animal.  These are what keep them feeling safe.  Just do it.  When confronted with dogs, Riley decided to stand behind me or switch to the other side of me.  Simple solutions are often useful, especially when they provide a sense of control.

5. Practice: Play out their fears with them.  Let them run the show, but sneak in solutions along the way.  Or, better yet, prompt your child to stop and think of a solution.  For various reasons, Riley has made several ER visits and has seen many doctors.  She worries a lot about when her next visit will be.  Consequently, we play a lot of doctor.  The best investment Santa made this year was the “Pet Vet” from www.onestepahead.com.  It has all of the necessary medical tools and a pet to cure as well.  I see her feeling more and more confident in her role as “Dr. Riley” each day.  Fear of the dark? Put a tent in a dark room with some flashlights and pillows and have a camp out.  Let your child be in charge of the activities for the camp out.  Fear of getting hurt? Break out those Band Aids and help the stuffed animals feel better after a fall.  Worried about monsters? Have a contest to see who can draw the funniest monster. Hold a silly monster party and see who can act the most like their favorite friendly monster from Sesame Street.  And don’t forget that shadow puppet show to make shadows fun instead of scary.

6. Baby steps: Fears don’t disappear overnight.  Kids need consistent cues to remember that they can have some control over their fears.  Riley and I do a relaxing story before she goes to bed every night.  The last thing I say to her every night is, “I love you Riley.  Try to think about our relaxing story and I will check on you soon”.  When monsters come up in conversation, we are sure to remind them that, “monsters are fun to pretend, like those friendly monsters on Sesame Street”.  If there is a chance to play with shadows, we take it.  When it comes to fear of dogs, small exposures are the best strategy.  Visit the pet store and look from afar. Read books about dogs.  Find a friend with a very old dog and plan a visit.  Learn about breeds.  Small dogs are actually more frightening to kids because they are more unpredictable than larger breeds.  Don’t ever touch a dog without asking owner permission first.  Teach them to get down low and hold out a hand for the dog to sniff.  Follow your child’s lead.  They’re not ready until they’re ready.

7. Avoid gimmicks: I addressed this in a previous post on sleep issues, but it’s worth repeating.  Things like monster spray, no monsters allowed signs, ghost spray, and ghost free zones might offer a quick fix at night, but they also confirm for your child that these things exist.  It’s best to be honest with your kids, and come up with realistic solutions together.  A monster check doesn’t have to be called a monster check.  When Riley starts to fear the shadows I tell her that I will check her room to make sure that it’s organized the way she likes it.  Putting the giant bear away from the night-light = one less shadow to worry about.


Anxiety and fears are all part of growing up.  When kids learn to cope with specific fears, they gain a sense of self-confidence and control.  Help them to conquer their fears by supporting them in their problem-solving process.  But try not to rush it; the world is a scary place.

What is your child’s biggest fear?

About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)