Lately, my 18-month-old has been scared of the dark and of furry things. He growls and points, trying to tell me that there is a monster in the room. His imagination is running wild right now. Children’s imaginations begin to develop around this age, so he is experiencing a lot of irrational fears. Empower a fearful child.
It can feel so frustrating when your child becomes emotional, refuses to do things, and is thinking irrationally. As a parent, dealing with a child’s fear can be a tricky thing. I want my child to be brave, to not be scared of the dark, to continue sleeping well, and to be comfortable trying new things, etc.
However, I don’t want him to feel alone, or that he can’t come to me with problems, or that he is powerless.
So what are the best ways to deal with a toddler’s fears?
Here are five important things to do when your toddler is scared.
Being scared of the dark, scared of monsters, etc comes from our natural survival instincts.
1. Recognize That Fear is Normal and Healthy
Fear is a natural emotion. I like to think of it like a smoke detector. Its purpose is to warn you of danger and protect you. When you remember its purpose, you realize it’s an important emotion for humans to experience.
It is a common practice in some parenting philosophies to discourage children from feeling fear altogether. I see this with boys especially. As a society, we teach boys and men that they should never be afraid.
However, this is not the healthiest way to work through natural human emotions. It is quite common for a lot of men to grow up and not know how to acknowledge and work through their emotions. I believe this culture plays a large role in that. This is becoming more common for girls as well as we have more of a focus on women being as strong as men in our society.
Instead, I think it’s important to teach kids that fear is normal and healthy. Showing fear can be a scary thing because it hasn’t always been culturally accepted, but there is great strength in teaching authenticity. As a Brene Brown, a favorite author of mine, says: “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”
Fear’s purpose is to warn us of danger. We can thank it for the warning, and once we are aware of possible danger, we can use that information to work through a challenge.
2. Respect Their Fear
As I was walking by a large basket covered with fur at Hobby Lobby, my toddler stopped and refused to take another step. He cried and pointed at the basket, growling because he truly believed there was danger.
While some fears may seem totally irrational to you, it’s important to remember that they are very real to your child. My little guy truly believed in his heart that there was a very dangerous monster at Hobby Lobby. So before following a natural instinct to reassure him and say “It’s ok”, it’s important to step back and have empathy for the emotion he was feeling in that moment.
You can express empathy by acknowledging that this emotion is very real for your child. “Wow, I can see that you are very afraid right now. Is that basket scary to you?”
Showing empathy lets your child know that you see them, you hear them, and you are there for them.
3. Help Them Reason
After you’ve expressed empathy, it can be helpful to help your toddler reason. I might pick the basket up and show him “Wow, Tate, this fur looks a lot like an animal. But look closer, it’s just a basket. It’s ok, buddy, it won’t hurt you.”
As an adult, you might understand that logically a fear your child is having is irrational, and you can help them understand there is no real danger to them.
4. Comfort Them and Ease Them Into New Things
I think it’s important to remember to use baby steps. When you let your child ease into something, you help them do it willingly, rather than forcing them to do something they are not comfortable with
Sometimes it feels like just exposing a child to something they’re afraid of will help them overcome the fear. It might force your child to do the thing they are afraid of, but you also might lose a lot of trust with them and create unnecessary anxiety.
I think it is a lot more effective to build trust and let their confidence expand. If your child is afraid of the pool, you might start by holding them and just walking with them in the water the first few times. Once that becomes a little more comfortable, you can slowly and gently introduce something else that feels scary to them.
This type of gentle parenting does take a little more time and effort, but it will help your child feel securely attached, and they will begin to be very independent knowing that they have a trustworthy support system to fall back on if a challenge in life ever feels too hard.
5. Help Your Scared Child Feel Empowered in the Dark, or Any New Situation.
It’s amazing how powerful reminding your child of the power inside of themselves can be. My little guy was afraid of our dog for a short period of time. She is very sweet, but she has a lot of puppy energy. We have had to work on training her not to jump.
At first, my natural instinct was to get the dog away from him and deal with her myself. However, I remembered that I wanted to teach him that he has power to protect himself too. Teaching him to say “Ellie, down” helped him stop being afraid, and I no longer had to intervene as often. He has become really good at setting boundaries with her and is no longer afraid
Think of what ways you can empower your child with their fear. For example, if your child believes there is a spider in their bed, you could show your child that they are bigger than the spider, and pretend to smash the spider. If your child is scared of the dark, a nightlight could be helpful so they can still see even when it is dark. Check out this post for more ways to combat your child’s fear of the dark.
Another way to empower your child is to teach them that it is ok to ask for help. Just remind them by saying “Do you need help?” Coach them through this and let them say the word “help”, or teach baby sign language so they can ask for your help before you jump in and do something for them. Your child will begin to ask for help on their own after some time and feel extremely empowered that they know the word to ask for what they need anytime a challenge presents itself.
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