By: Dr. Diana Collins
Fears are a normal part of childhood. Inevitably, every child will experience challenges that trigger anxiety as part of growing up. As parents, we want to make our children feel better. But we can’t, and should not, always be there to help kids calm down in every situation. Teaching our kids how to manage childhood fears over time will help build their confidence and independence so they will feel more in control and less afraid as they mature.
What Do Children Fear at Certain Stages?
Infants feel stranger anxiety. When infants are between eight and nine months old they can recognize the faces of people close to them, like their mother and father. That is why new faces seem to scare them, even if it is a relative. They may cry or cling to a parent.
Toddlers feel separation anxiety. At some time between 10 and 12 months, many toddlers start to fear being apart from a parent or primary caregiver. They may not want their parent to leave them at a daycare or at bedtime. They may protest or cry.
Young kids fear pretend things. Kids ages four to six can imagine and make believe. But they can’t quite tell what is real or perceived. They might fear monsters under the bed or in the closet. They might be afraid of the dark or of their dreams, or even loud noises.
Older kids fear real-life dangers. When kids are seven or above, monsters don’t scare them (much) because they know they are not real. At this stage, some kids fear what could happen in real life. They might fear what could happen if a “bad man” were in the house. They may be afraid of disasters they hear about on the news, like weather events or an illness. Children today are reminded every day of COVID with news, social media, and everyday life. They may fear a loved one being hurt or dying. School-age kids may feel nervous about schoolwork, grades, or fitting in with friends.
Preteens or teens have social fears. They may feel anxious about how they look, whether they fit in with their peers, giving a report in class, starting a new school, taking a big exam, playing in a game, or participating in a new activity.
How to Help Children and Teens with Fears and Anxiety
• Rely on routines. Establish routines that involve healthy exercise, meals, and sleep. Healthy sleep cycles will improve mood and anxiety. The important thing to keep in mind is flexibility, especially if starting a new routine with children. Model calm behavior. Our children learn how to handle stress and anxiety from us.
• Make sure to put feelings into words. Kids may know what is frightening to them, but they don’t have words to explain them. Check in frequently and listen.
• Validate, then move on. Once you know what the fear is, let your child know you take it seriously. Help them slowly face fears and help them gain courage.
• Make a plan. Parents should remember change takes time and fear is a powerful emotion, so be patient. Stay consistent and praise your child’s work. Saying, “You got this,” for example, helps kids prepare for challenges, like tests or reports.
• Encourage positive thinking. Share what you appreciate about your child.
• Stay connected to others. Foster ways of connection to peers, family, and community, even in these challenging times, with safe distancing.
Not All Fears Are the Same
Some children have a harder time and need more help with fears. If fears are extreme, persistent, overly intense, or begin interfering with a child’s daily life and routine, this might be a sign of an anxiety disorder. Signs of severe anxiety can present differently depending on the age and cause a great deal of impairment for the child and usually warrant talking to a professional. Other signs of excess anxiety include panic attacks, such as stomachaches, headaches, or racing heart or your child feels breathless, dizzy, or sick. Children may display disruptive behavior, major tantrums, meltdowns, or school refusal or withdraw from activity, school, friends, or family.
If your child’s fears or anxiety seem like they might be something more serious, make an appointment with a professional (such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist, or pediatrician) to see if more help is necessary.
ABOUT DR. DIANA COLLINS M.D.
Dr. Diana Collins earned her medical degree at the University of Texas Health Science Center in 1992, finished her residency in General Psychiatry in 1995, and completed a fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in 1997. She’s been in practice since 1997 and has had her own office in Sugar Land since 1999. Dr. Collins was voted as The Most Outstanding Psychiatrist in 2018 and 2019, received the Reader’s Choice Award of Fort Bend County from Living Magazine, was a KnowAutism Ambassador in 2019, and was the recipient of the 2021 Ken DeMerchant award for service in Fort Bend County.