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10 Common Toddler Fears - And How to Overcome Them

Your toddler’s world is fast expanding. She’s increasingly aware, dialed in, and capable of exploring. But the flip side is that the world is so big, she’s so little, and there are a lot of strange and confusing people, places, and experiences to figure out.

Many kids come equipped with a healthy dose of fear toward things that are novel, unexpected, or overwhelming. Fears and anxieties are not usually problematic; they’re a natural part of development. Our job as parents is to respect our little ones’ hang-ups and worries and give them just enough support to work through them. Here are 10 common toddler fears and how you can best help your child overcome them.

  • The fear: Separation anxiety
    For some kids, separation anxiety peaks in toddlerhood. It’s a natural reaction that many little ones have to being apart from their most trusted someone. It’s not something you can or should “fix” – whether or not your toddler is clingy has a lot to do with her hard-wired temperament. It’s a normal, healthy sign of attachment (although the lack of strong separation anxiety doesn’t imply a less-secure bond).

    How to beat it:
    Spend a little time connecting, sitting, or playing with your toddler and her caregiver before you leave, then say a clean goodbye. Come up with comfort options when you’re gone (a blankie, a picture of you, or writing you a note). Talk about the separation with your toddler once you’re back. Over time, with a consistent pattern of you going and always returning, she will internalize a sense of trust and safety.

  • The fear: New foods
    Toddlers are notoriously wary of new flavors and textures. In fact, they’re biologically programmed to be that way. The degree to which your little one narrows in his tastes in toddlerhood will depend on his temperament, but how you approach food has a big impact too.

    How to beat it:
    Repetition and exposure are key. Keep offering a lot of healthy choices but leave it up to your child to decide whether and how much to eat. A recent study conducted at the University of Granada showed that if kids have multiple choices of veggies, for example, they are much more likely to eat more vegetables overall. Eat with your child and focus on the company and conversation (tell a compelling story about forklifts), rather than on what she’s eating or not eating. When your child rejects something, instead of deciding she doesn’t like it, frame it in your mind as, she doesn’t know this food yet.

  • The fear: The dark
    Toddlers can be afraid of the dark because they now have the capacity for imagination. In other words, being spooked when the lights go down means that your child’s brain has reached a new level of sophistication.

    How to beat it:
    Respect your child’s fear of the dark – you remember (or still feel) your own unease in the pitch black, right? Ask her how it makes her feel, or say something like, “I know, the dark is different because we can’t see much.” Use a nightlight and spend some time in the almost-dark explaining matter-of-factly what’s happening (for example, what shadows are or how our eyes adjust to the dark).

  • The fear: Nightmares
    As with the fear of the dark, nightmares are possible now because your toddler has a budding imagination and the ability to spin strange and creative tales at night. She’s also starting to get the concept that bad things can happen in life. Nightmares tend to be strongest in the preschool years, but a toddler of any age can have bad dreams.

    How to beat it:
    The number one goal is to comfort your child when she’s scared. But it’s helpful to give her ways to comfort herself so that she feels some sense of control and agency when she’s afraid. When she wakes up and calls out, turn on a dim light if it helps. Rub her back or give her a hug if she needs it and then suggest she squeeze her stuffed animal, rub her lovie on her face, pull the blankets up, or flip the pillow over to “change the channel on the dream.”

  • The fear: Movies
    Yes, Nemo losing his dad or the fiery end of Toy Story 3 might upset your child, but toddlers can also get spooked by seemingly small or random parts of movies – during scenes you wouldn’t anticipate causing problems – so it’s hard to predict what will trigger his fears.

    How to beat it:
    Watching non-violent, slower-paced movies or TV shows is a good idea, although some believe that with a parent there to help explain, scarier movies are okay. Don’t be surprised if your toddler’s fears come out in her play, or with incessant talking about a particular scene or disturbing moment; that’s her way of wrapping her head around it and working through the fear.

  • The fear: Loud, sudden noises
    Does your toddler jump when you grind coffee, use the vacuum, or flush a toilet?
    Some little kids are exquisitely sensitive to noise. It could be that they have fined-tuned hearing, but, more likely, they are wired to be easily startled. For some kids, a sudden action or sound triggers a strong physiological reaction; it’s usually a legitimate biological fact, not an act or ploy for attention.

    How to beat it:
    Before swooping in with, “It’s okay, it’s okay,” make a brief statement to help your toddler understand what just happened and let her know you saw it. “Wow, that was a loud noise. Did that surprise you?” Or “You don’t like the sound of that toilet, huh? It’s too loud, and you weren’t expecting it?” Next time, see if you can prepare your little one with an, “Okay, I’m going to turn on the blender if anyone wants to cover their ears!”

  • The fear: New people
    Some kids run right into a new environment – strangers and all – without a second thought, while others like to hang back and warm up first. Again, the approach that your child takes is mostly due to her temperament (the wiring she was born with).

    How to beat it:
    If you have a cautious creature, respect the warm-up time and try to be patient. If other people pressure your kid to hug, kiss, or play with them (or throw around “Are you shy?” or “What’s wrong?”), just say, “Oh, we’re just checking things out/warming up.” Sit down on the floor and play with your child to help her get comfy and start to engage. If you can empathize with your child because you were shy as well (usually at least one parent has some experience with this), talk about it and tell a story about how you used to feel and what it was like for you.

  • The fear: Water
    Some little kids seem inherently cautious around water. Others start off carefree and later on have bad experiences in the water that makes them fearful – that fear sometimes even extends to the bathtub. Water worries are somewhat natural and may be evolutionarily programmed. (It’s not hard to see how a healthy fear of the water is an adaptive trait.)

    How to beat it:
    The best way to help your toddler is through exposure, but not pressure. See if you can spend more leisurely time at the pool or the beach, or even just splashing in the bath or a wading pool in the front yard. Swim lessons – if they are with friendly, understanding instructors – can really help too. If you’re anxious around water yourself, make sure you’re not transmitting this fear to your child through your body language or words.

  • The fear: Physical feats, like climbing
    You may have one of those toddlers who is a little more cautious about making big physical moves. This is the child less inclined to monkey up the coffee table and dive onto the couch, scale up the slide the wrong way, or climb a pole and jump into the sand.

    How to beat it:
    Try to resist shouting, “You can do it!” And go for something supportive but reflective of what your child is experiencing, like, “Are you wondering if you can make it? I bet if you put your foot on that ledge and pull up, you’ll be one step higher.” When your child finally pulls through and makes the leap, instead of just, “You did it! Do it again!”, it comes across better to say, “Wow, you were unsure about that and then you jumped and it worked – I saw that!”

  • The fear: Animals
    If you’ve ever been afraid of bugs or dogs, you can probably empathize with your toddler. Sometimes toddler fears are specific to one animal, while other times little kids are just generally uncomfortable around creatures.

    How to beat it:
    Instead of simply reassuring your child and telling her nothing’s wrong, let her know that you understand how it feels to be scared. Offer her a way to move through the fear, like holding your hand while you walk together past a barking dog, and then get on with your day instead of trying to convince her dogs are harmless. Toddlers naturally work through their fears of specific creatures, so don’t worry that she’ll always be animal-averse. For an older child, it helps to work your way up to the fear: hold a smaller animal like a rabbit, look at dogs through a window, or watch a video of a friendly dog.

The best approach to helping your toddler through fears strikes a balance of respecting her feelings (the fears or anxieties), but also supporting her enough to help her grow, try new things, or face the fear. In other words: follow your child’s lead, but at the same time offer ideas and strategies for moving on.

For example: your child is terrified of dogs. You’re walking past one on the sidewalk and your child freezes and won’t move. Start by validating: “There’s a dog here, is that making you scared/uncomfortable (or whatever word resonates)?” Then, move into a strategy: “I hear that. I have an idea, let’s hold hands as we go past.” If your protests or is still frozen, try, “Okay, how about I pick you up and we walk by?” Later on, talk about what’s scary about dogs and explain how they behave in a matter-of-fact way.

In other words, don’t push your toddler. There’s nothing wrong with your small child being afraid of things – fear is a legitimate, natural, and adaptive response to the world, and some kids are just born more sensitive. If you notice that fears are taking over your child’s life or seriously limiting what she’s able to do, though, mention it to your doctor.

Article Posted 4 years Ago
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