Is it normal for very young kids to become suddenly afraid of new or even familiar things? Fear of the night? Fear of dark? New places and people? Unexpectedly, a favorite TV character or type of food sends your child over the edge? They cry. Get clingy. What’s going on? And how should parents handle this?
First off, I coach parents to remain calm. Like a virus, anxiety is contagious. We pick it up from kids and they pick it up from us. We pass it back and forth between us all day and it only gets stronger. Don’t overreact or show concern when a new fear arises. Keep a calm outward appearance. Use a strong, supportive voice… You seem afraid of that… that’s fine. But it can’t hurt you. You don’t need to say much more than that. If you talk about it or ask lots of questions, you’ll accidentally be rewarding (and encouraging) your child to be afraid. Attention is that powerful. If your child keeps at it, repeat the phrase a few times. Keep your voice calm but firm, and keep your poker face on. Kids look at our faces continually for signals that something dangerous may be happening. This is called social referencing. It’s an innate survival tactic. Kids might think, If my mommy or daddy look scared or concerned, there must be something wrong… bad things could be lurking. We use it too. Check out how often you look at others to figure out what’s happening in a situation that’s vague or uneasy. If we read negative cues from others, our anxiety hits the roof. Kids do this more frequently than us and they have more intense reactions to it.
Next, I explain to parents what might be happening. Think development. There may be a new re-wiring in the brain taking place. Kids go through this all the time, and more frequently in their younger years. Before they make a developmental change or leap, they can fall apart temporarily. I call this “the storm before the calm”. Think of it as things temporarily going haywire while new and improved updates are being downloaded. Wait it out and you often see your child better behaved or suddenly showing a new skill.
I also ask parents to take a fast inventory of what’s going on in their lives and try to lower the stress. What’s going on with them and their partners, their work life, is someone close to them sick? Kids are like barometers and pick up the anxiety. It’s that contagious. They react (often in unpredictable and strange ways) to the stress we’re trying to navigate through or holding into. Job or economic problems, worries about a health issue, marital stress, even positive things like renovating a home or moving to a better place can cause temporary fears to suddenly appear in young kids.
Finally, if fears persist beyond a few days or week or two, I ask parents to let me know and to also talk with their pediatrician about it. Child professionals can help parents determine if something bigger is going on. We look to see if it’s an isolated incident, or if a child is regressing in other areas. Has their typical functioning changed? We don’t want to panic or worry unnecessarily, but we also don’t want to miss anything important. Usually though, fears pass through. They tend to shift over time, and are a part of how our brains are hardwired. As the old saying goes, there’s nothing to fear but fear itself. In this context, I would update that to… There’s usually nothing to fear about fear.
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