How to deal with toddler phobias

How can you make your child’s fears and phobias go away?

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Knowing how to deal with your toddler’s phobias can determine whether it’s a passing phase or set to become a daily occurrence. But what could your child possibly have to worry about? Well, quite a lot it turns out. Sights and sounds that would pass unnoticed by you could, for a sensitive child, appear larger than life.

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“Children experience stress just as adults do,” says David Thomas of the Phobic Society. “It could be an event such as going to nursery for the first time or the arrival of a new siblingBut one of the most common ways young people experience anxiety is through a specific phobia.” 

Most anxieties, fears and phobias have ‘triggers’. They can simply be hand-me-down reactions: you scream at the sight of an earwig and the chances are that your child will note your reaction and repeat it. Or fears can be the result of feeling threatened, intimidated or out of control. Sometimes there appears to be no known cause at all.

“Some phobias and fears appear to be common to most people in most cultures, appearing at an early age,” says Dr Jeff L Brown, author of No More Monsters In The Closet. “Many of those are founded on actual danger. For example, the dark, where one might be more vulnerable to attack; insects, which might sting; and other objects, which appear frightening because they’re unpredictable and, therefore, may be dangerous, such as dogs.”

Here are some common phobias and ways to deal with them:

Fear of clowns

Instead of being entertained, your toddler can be intimidated by clowns, with their big ‘presence’, their frozen grin expressions, and odd fancy dress.

“This is a common fear,” says clinical child psychologist Professor Thomas H Ollendick. “It seems to evolve from the uncertainty of what is behind the mask and the lack of control that the child has over it.”

“Yolanda has an extreme fear of dressy-up people, which is rather unfortunate given that I work for Disney,” says Rita, 39, mum to Yolanda, 4. “She doesn’t even like to look at the photo of me with Mickey Mouse. Children’s parties can be a nightmare.”

The expert’s solution

“The solution here is to play dressing-up games with adult clothing, where Yolanda pretends she’s the mum and bosses other people about,” says Professor Alexander Gardner, chartered psychologist and psychotherapist. “She’ll start to feel in charge of what is happening and will, therefore, not feel so scared about it all.”

Scared of bumps in the night

At bedtime, your child will often recall the minor anxieties and fears from the day and magnify them. This could be an upset with a friend or an unsavoury cartoon character. Your child can become a victim of her own imagination.

“Reggie often calls for me in the middle of the night, shouting, ‘Mummy, make the nasty man go away!’” says Violet, 38, mum to Reggie, 3. “He’s convinced something horrible is hiding in the dark behind the door.”

The expert’s solution

“Speaking in an authoritative voice. I’d say something like, ‘Monsters aren’t allowed in our house,’” says Dr Jeff L Brown. “If that doesn’t work, try using a pretend ‘monster spray’ or something similar, telling him, ‘There are no monsters in our house, but you can keep them away by spraying this under the bed.’ This inconsistency doesn’t seem to bother most children. And it’s using their imaginations to empower them.”

Afraid of stormy weather

“My son, Lee, 2, is petrified of thunder. The only way to calm him down is to sing, ‘I hear thunder,’ over and over again until it has finished!” says Laura, 30 “I do know how it started – about a year ago, we had a bad storm with high winds. Just as thunder struck, 15 ridge tiles from the roof fell down. We were both quite shaken up by it.”

 The expert’s solution

“Sounds are one of the most obvious forms of inducing fear in young children,” says Professor Ollendick. “Simply stand behind a child and clap your hands loudly. Your child will have a startled response, which is the precursor to a fear response.”

In situations where the unpredictable happens, it’s important for parents to remain calm and reassuring in voice and expression – even if you’re jangling on the inside. Conveying a message of safety will help calm fears. “If mum is scared, the child will be also, and many phobias have their roots in learned behaviour,” adds chartered psychologist and psychotherapist Professor Gardner.

Scared of insects

“My 3 year old has a terrible fear of insects with wings, particularly flies. If it’s a greenfly, she’s petrified,” says Nat, 42, mum to Sophia, 3. “We’ve told her they won’t hurt her, but if one flies near her suddenly, she starts to scream.”

The expert’s solution

“Sophia may grow out of her phobia but that will depend to a large extent on how other people respond to her fear,” says Alexandra Cooper, clinical psychologist at the Coventry Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service.

“Fear of insects isn’t uncommon among children or adults, but if the adults around Sophia are helping her avoid insects, this could well reinforce her fear. It’s important that she understands that most insects can do her no harm, and is gradually exposed to them in a reassuring and relaxed way so she’s not distressed by the process and is praised for her efforts.”

Misunderstood information causing fear

You want to protect your child, but you can’t always guard her from phone conversations, nursery talk and radio or TV news broadcasts. She can also pick up on the tiniest of details. 

“Trudie heard about a certain ‘missing child’ case through news broadcasts and is now petrified of being alone, even just on a different level in the house,” says August, 24, mum to Trudie, 4. “She’s convinced someone will come through the window and take her.”

The expert’s solution

According to Professor Gardner, telling your child that something will never happen may not be enough. “A 4 year old may not have reached the stage of abstract reasoning, so Trudie might need a protective talisman, such as a special teddy bear she knows will protect her. To give her some feeling of control, let her choose her own new teddy for the job.”

3 ways to help your toddler with her fears

1 Don’t over-empathise – “Don’t give too much attention to fears,” says Dr Jeff L Brown, author of No More Monsters In The Closet. – Teaching Your Children to Overcome Everyday Fears and Phobias

 “Your own anxiety may lead you to talk too much, which may make your child even more nervous. Or, worse still, your child learns that acting afraid (without actually being afraid) is a sure way to get attention. Generally, the younger your child is, the less talking you should do.”

2 Gradual exposure – “This means gradually introducing your child to the fearful object or situation, while helping her to remain relaxed and calm,” says Alexandra Cooper. “Start with drawings, perhaps, then move on to photos, television images or models.”

3 Seek advice – “If your child is handicapped by the fear, you need to know what you’re doing,” says child psychologist Emma Citron. “You can go through the NHS or you can see someone privately. Generally, it will involve behavioural desensitisation therapy, assessing the exact fear and getting your child to talk about it using coping techniques and mental strategies.” 

Mum’s story

“Our daughter has a phobia of other children crying”

 “I’m a nursery nurse, and Lottie has been coming to work with me since she was 5 months old. But a few months ago, she suddenly developed a phobia of children crying, to the point that she’d become hysterical and try to get out of the room. I went through so many scenarios in my head, but I couldn’t find a trigger.

“The psychologists I contacted said she was too young to treat and that I needed to see if it was a phase. But we didn’t want it to get so bad that it would become an issue when she starts school. Eventually, clinical psychologist Alastair Barnett agreed to help Lottie. He said that cognitively she was advanced, but emotionally she wasn’t, and that she found crying confusing, especially with younger children, with whom she couldn’t communicate.

“He’s given us techniques to help her, such as doing role play with upsets in the middle and happy endings. We warn her, then put her in situations where there may be crying children, so she can see that it gets better.

“We’ve been just twice to Alastair and there’s already a huge improvement. She’s no longer hysterical if she hears a baby crying in the supermarket; instead she’ll say, ‘I’m going to be happy.’ ”

Adele, 38, mum to Lottie, 3

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