Typical Fears That Toddlers Face
Your toddler's fear of the dark, noises and closets are super common, but there are ways to comfort them.
Typical Fears That Toddlers Face
Your baby has seemingly grown overnight, and now you have a full-fledged toddler on your hands. But even though your little one is turning into a kid quickly, there are still countless new experiences that might scare them.
Toddlers often become fearful of a variety of things as they navigate their new worlds. I mean, who ever said laying in the dark was easy? In order to help your little one, we've broken down the most common fears that toddlers face and interviewed childcare experts who offer some of their best tips on how your child can overcome his or her anxieties.
Most of the childcare experts we spoke with listed “fear of the dark” as a common one they see in their professional experiences. And because it’s so typical, parents have come up with a variety of ways to help kids overcome it, including getting a nightlight for your little one. If you can get one that has a character, they’ll love it even more.
Another favorite tactic for helping kiddos overcome their fear of the dark is having a nighttime ritual like reading in bed. That way your little one learns to associate the darkness with happy memories of their family.
While being fearful of the weather isn't as well known, it’s still common in toddlers.
"Toddlers may also be fearful of thunderstorms or other changes in the weather," says Dr. Tammy Zacchilli, an associate professor of psychology at Saint Leo University. "If a toddler is afraid of thunderstorms, reassure the child that he or she is safe. It’s okay to provide comfort to the child during a storm."
Reading your child books about the weather can also help normalize storms and snow to your little one.
This year, I was so excited to meet my new niece, who lives across the country, but I quickly realized she is fearful of strangers, which experts agree is a widespread fear for toddlers.
"Stranger anxiety is a healthy behavior that allows the child to feel protected. However, this might discourage family members who do not see the child often," Zacchilli says. "If you know that the child will see one of these relatives in the near future, consider showing the child pictures of the person and telling stories."
Another great option that my family uses is FaceTime, so relatives who live far away will become more recognizable to my niece. Zacchilli says letting family members know ahead of time that the toddler is experiencing "stranger danger," aka the fear of strangers, is another way to avoid family members getting their feelings hurt.
All of the parenting experts we interviewed listed separation anxiety as one of the most common fear toddlers face.
"Separation anxiety is a sensory issue due to proprioception, or not knowing where one is in a space," says Rebecca Blake, Ph.D., owner of Creating Super Kids, and author of the best-selling book "Unlock Your Child's True Potential." "To alleviate it, do a lot of tapping on the joints, jumping and swimming. Input into joints awaken the proprioceptors in the joints."
Donna Bozzo, a national parenting expert who has published various books including “Fidget Busters 50 Ways To Keep Kids Busy While You Get Things Done," suggests a variety of solutions for toddlers experiencing separation anxiety. "Talk to them. Tell them, 'Mom is leaving now, but she always comes back.' Let them air out their fears," she says. "Give them ways to count time, a new cuddle friend or even a chance to FaceTime you if it's an extended absence."
Katie Ziskind, an experiential family therapist, says parents should always avoid laughing at their toddler over their fear. "Comfort them, give lots of hugs, cuddles and kisses. Teach them that fears are okay to have and they can be worked through," she said. "If your child has anxiety going to preschool when you go to work, leave him or her with something that smells like you for support."
Between friends, family and daycare, it is likely your little one will spend a good amount of time with other people. Sometimes, they will pick up a new fear from someone else.
"Your parent, caregiver or other person's fear will create a fear in the child. If a child falls and you respond by gasping, holding your breath, putting your hand to your mouth or running hysterically to the child, then the child will think there is something to fear," Blake says. "Toddlers' brains are not ready to take all that information in rationally. They could create a lifelong fear due to your reactions or fears."
Experts agree that when a kid falls, we should take a deep breath and remain calm while asking if they are okay. "Let the child get up and see what they do because 99.99 percent of the time they are fine," Blake says. "We create unconscious fears in our children unknowingly."
Plus, with parents' desires to keep their kiddos safe, it's not shocking that a little fear could slip in, too. "Safety is so important, so it can be a mind-boggling time. Try not to let your fear of your child's safety get the best of you to where you get to the point of overreacting," Bozzo says. "You want your kids to feel free to explore, so do everything in your power to create a safe environment."
A New Sibling
A new baby on the way can send a toddler into a tailspin. "When I was pregnant with my third, my three-year-old said she was afraid mommy wouldn't love her anymore when the new baby came," Bozzo says. "I said, I couldn't love you anymore. But she misinterpreted that and said, 'You can't love me anymore.' I turned the statement around and said, ‘No, I can't love you any MORE — because I love you all that there is, more than there is.'"
Since Bozzo talked it out with her daughter, her fear turned into the family mantra — "I love you all that there is, more than there is."
Explaining the happy accident, Bozzo says, "Because she shared her fear, I was able to reinforce the positive. She is in college now, and we still say it to each other."
Some of the fears toddlers have make so much sense, considering they are tiny humans who barely know what is going on around them.
"Toddlers have fears that come with growth, such as when they are being potty trained," Ziskind says. "They often are afraid of falling into an adult-sized toilet, so it helps to allow them to pick out a smaller child potty to learn."
Ziskind also offered the following solutions for helping a toddler get over their fear of potty training: "Get Elmo books and ‘What Is Poo?’ to help them get familiar. Try buying a doll that pees, joining a Facebook parent support group such as ‘Oh Crap, Potty Training’ and having your toddler spend time around an older child who uses the toilet already."
If you don't live near large bodies of water, they might seem terrifying to your toddler when they finally see one. Or maybe you or someone in your family has a fear of water that your little one noticed. Regardless, know that lots of kids have this fear.
Bringing your little one to more lakes, beaches, rivers and pools will help them understand that swimming is a super fun way to spend a summer day. Growing up in Florida, we took swim lessons as babies to prepare us for the large bodies of water that surrounded us. Finding a good program with kid-friendly instructors can help your toddler overcome their fear of water in no time.
Sometimes, a pure noise can cause fear in a little one. Elizabeth Malson, president of the Amslee Institute, the only licensed online technical school with a childcare curriculum designed for professional nannies, uses the example of a child being startled by a laundry basket that fell from the couch onto the tile floor, making a loud bang in the process.
If something like this happens, she suggests calming the child with hugs and reassurances. "Then, show the child what happened by repeating the event with the child watching,” she says. “In this way, a young child can start to connect noises with causes."
Adults love to dress up babies and toddlers for Halloween. But without explanation, an adult in a costume — like even a seemingly harmless Santa or Easter Bunny — can be pretty terrifying to a kid.
"Don't force children into an encounter if they aren't ready, even if you seek a holiday photo. The photo is unlikely to turn out well if the child is upset," Malson says.
Some kids love experiencing new things like visiting their sibling at school or going to the museum for the first time. But, often, there are so many unknown stimuli that toddlers can become overwhelmed and fearful. Experts assured us, though, that parents can help their little ones work through their fear of new experiences pretty easily.
"When [your] child is upset, first calm and comfort them and let them know it's okay to be afraid, so they learn to identify their emotion,” Malson says. “When calm, help your child understand the event by using words to explain [it] or by repeating the event in a calm and non-frightening manner."
It can be hard to predict what exactly will give your toddler anxiety. So, don't be surprised if your little one loves certain movies, but then becomes fearful during others. Sticking with more cheerful films could help avoid the fear altogether.
If your toddler does get upset about a scene in a movie, pause the film and explain what happened in a calm and steady tone. If they remain scared of the movie, parents should feel free to take it off the watchlist until they're older.
Closets might seem like a weird fear to have, but the key to dealing with a toddler's concerns is to remember that the unknown can be scary, and for kids life is a constant stream of unknowns.
"Toddlers discover the world through interactions and play as they explore new toys and experience different environments or events," Malson says. “If your toddler has a fear of closets, let the child decide if the closet door should be open or closed.”
Fears Over Time
Most of the common fears a toddler will have should decrease and go away over time. But if they don't, parents should feel good about looking for help.
"If the fear persists and affects the child’s daily activities, it would be a good idea to discuss this with a pediatrician or child psychologist," Zacchilli says.
Some toddlers are fearless and march confidently into danger simply because they don't know any better. And that can lead to a very real fear for parents.
Even though toddlers are trying to be independent, climbing on furniture or acting fearless in other ways can put them in dangerous situations. And while parents need to be extra cautious about this, they also need to give their child some independence and realize that accidents are part of the process.
And last but certainly not least: “Positive quality time with your toddler can be beneficial in alleviating their fears and helping them grow," Zacchilli says.