It happened so gradually that she barely noticed it at first. But eventually, Shari Kanell, a mother of four from Ridgewood, recognized a look of terror on the face of her then 5-year-old daughter when she asked her to go upstairs and start getting ready for bed. "She would take a really long time," Kanell says, "and then either drag her sister with her or run up the stairs two at a time."
Eventually her daughter confessed that she was afraid of monsters. And of course the monsters lived upstairs, under the beds in each of the kids' bedrooms. Even today, many years later, her now pre-teen daughter sometimes makes Kanell walk upstairs with her at night. "It's getting to the point where it's a real pain sometimes," Kanell says.
It's normal for children to develop occasional fears of even seemingly innocuous things throughout childhood, says Dr. Judith Gurfein, a psychologist and therapist who often works with children in her Paramus office. Some of the more common things that frighten children include dogs, insects, the dark, thunder and lightning, vacuums, water (when learning to swim), blood, vomiting and needles.
In most cases, parents can help their children get over or learn to manage their fears. It's best to address the problem as quickly as possible, so parents should be alert to changes in a child's behavior that might indicate a new fear.
"The most important thing I've learned," Gurfein says, "is that the sooner you dispel the fear, the less likely that it will become a lasting fear or phobia." A full-blown phobia can interfere with day-to-day living and require professional intervention. So how exactly might a parent help a child overcome fears and phobias?
In many cases, Gurfein says, it's actually possible to prevent fears in the first place. One key is to be calm and reassuring (but clear and firm) when talking to children about safety concerns. You certainly should not act fearful yourself.
"If you are an anxious adult," Gurfein says, "your child will sense your fears, and therefore, it is important that a parent deal with his or her own issues." If you are afraid of dogs and avoid them whenever you see them, your child will probably sense your anxiety and be afraid as well.
Of course, not only will a child imitate your fears, but if you are a timid adult who was born with a sensitive temperament, it's likely your child will have inherited a similar disposition, which makes both of you more likely to be fearful than others. In that case, you need to try to appear even calmer around your child.
Another key to preventing common fears in children is to pay attention to "critical ages" where children are generally unafraid of certain situations. For example, the critical age after which children are afraid of swimming is 2 years old.
"They should be splashing around by age 2," Gurfein says. "They should be taught to put their entire face in the water with their eyes and their mouths closed. And if they're taught that when they're very little, in the bathtub even, then they won't be afraid of the swimming pool or water."
The fear of dogs also sometimes crops up during the toddler years. Rebecca Fay of Harrington Park, a mother of three boys, ages 2, 4 and 6, says her middle son was enthusiastic about dogs until he was about 3.
"He used to always go over to see our neighbor's dog," she says. "But one day last year, our neighbors were out walking their dog, and he just freaked out and clung to me and jumped in my arms." That had never happened – and she doesn't know what set it off – but he still is very fearful.
Obviously you can't prevent every fear. When a child is already fearful, parents can help by showing they are not afraid of whatever is freaking out the child. "Little by little," Fay says, "they'll realize that they don't have to be afraid of it either."
Another technique is to show your child how to gain some control over the object she fears. That's because many fears are exacerbated when a child feels powerless, Gurfein says. A vacuum cleaner might be scary initially to a small child simply because it's loud and it startles him or hurts his ears. But if a child is shown how to turn it on and off and how to use it, he gains control over it. He still might not like the noise, but he will, hopefully, stop being afraid of it.
Patience and persistence are important tools in a parent's arsenal. Behavioral therapists often use a technique called systematic desensitization or successive approximation when helping patients overcome a phobia. In a nutshell, it involves teaching someone how to relax and then slowly getting the patient closer and closer to the object of his fears while helping the patient stay in a relaxed state.
Parents can try a basic form of that at home by slowly and calmly getting your child closer and closer to the object he fears. So in the Kanell house, for example, the parents might try to accompanying their daughter upstairs for a few nights. Then maybe they'll go halfway up the stairs with her and wait there for a few more nights. And then they can ask her to try it on her own.
Know your limits
Of course, if your child is utterly, paralyzingly terrified of something and it doesn't seem to improve after several months, it's time to seek professional help. Look for a psychologist or therapist who works with children. When the child is very young, the therapist will work with the parents to help address the child's fears on a daily basis.
Common Childhood Fears
Here are some common childhood fears and advice from Dr. Judith Gurfein and others about how parents can handle them.
DOGS: Most children are fascinated by dogs when they are toddlers, so try to teach your child how to interact with them safely at a young age before they become fearful. That is, choose a friendly animal for your child to pet. And then teach him to always ask the owner first and wait for the owner to secure the dog while the child is interacting with it; to not look directly into the eyes of a strange dog, even if the owner is holding it; and to make sure they are gentle when handling a dog. "Show them that if they're not running after the dog," Gurfein says, "then chances are they're not going to be running after you." Dog-themed books and lots of talk about dogs over time should also help.
INSECTS: Young children are often frightened of these because they are unpredictable and some can sting. You can start to counter that fear by reading books to your child about the critters and discussing all the good things flying insects can do, like pollinating flowers and making honey. Next, take your child outside to study the real things. She doesn't have to touch them, of course, but if you're brave, you can try to get a non-stinging insect to crawl on you. Show that you are not afraid and that most insects are not aggressive.
SWIMMING: The critical age for not being afraid of water is 2, so try to expose your child to the swimming pool at a very early age. At any age, enter the water with them and show them what a good time they can have in the water. Blow bubbles, put your face in, splash around and look like you're enjoying it. If they "see you doing this over and over," Gurfein says, "then they'll figure, how bad could this be?"
THE DARK: Take children outside at night from time to time, especially when they're quite young. Show them the moon and the stars and the Christmas lights, and how pretty everything looks when it's dark out. "It should be part of their natural involvement in the world," Gurfein says. "If they feel secure and they know that the dark in and of itself isn't threatening, they should be able to get over this fear."
THUNDER AND LIGHTNING: Thunder and lightning can be quite frightening for a small child. Violent weather is loud and can cause power failures. Gurfein suggests "parents should explain right away that this is not dangerous; it's just unpleasant." When the electricity goes out, take out flashlights and make it a fun family together time.
VOMITING: Lots of children fear throwing up. Be calm and matter of fact when they do so, and explain that it doesn't happen very often and that even though it's an uncomfortable feeling, throwing up can make them feel better when they have an upset stomach.
STRANGERS: Stranger anxiety, where baby cries when they see or interact with a stranger, is probably the most ubiquitous of all childhood fears. Pretty much every baby develops it when they learn, usually around 9 months of age, to distinguish people they know from people they don't. It's a healthy milestone signifying normal development and usually only lasts a few months.
SEPARATION: Separation anxiety sometimes occurs when a child goes to preschool or day care for the first time. They feel anxious aboutnot being near mom or dad, but with a bit of patience, almost all children will learn to separate and enjoy time away from home. Gurfein says that in most cases, the separationanxiety develops as a response to the mother's (or primary caregiver's) anxiety about leaving the child. "The mother," she says, "needs to explore her own anxieties aboutletting the child grow up and letting the child go to a new place with strangers."
NEEDLES: When taking a child to the doctor's office for a visit, emphasize that shots or vaccinations are given to help them stay well or to make them get better. Don't talk too much about the pain, but explain calmly that it's only going to sting for a little bit.