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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.

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