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Special Needs Awareness

Childhood Fear and Anxiety

What Fears in Children are Normal

October 01, 2009
It's the middle of the night and a storm is raging outside. You hardly notice it, though, until your 6-year-old climbs into your bed. And as you feel that little body shaking next to you, you wonder, "Is this normal?"

As a pediatric psychologist, some of the most frequent questions I hear from parents—in both my clinical practice and in casual conversation with friends and colleagues—are about children's fears and anxieties. Is this normal? Is this a problem? What should we do about it? Indeed, after childhood behavior problems, childhood fears and anxieties are the most common concerns presented to child psychologists and pediatricians.

Every child has fears and anxieties to varying degrees. Some of these fears are common to childhood, while others are outside the range of expected reactions and responses. As parents, we know that some anxiety can be helpful and adaptive. For example, when a child feels anxious when approached by a stranger or when crossing a busy street, they are more likely to be cautious and safe. Some heightened nervousness when facing a spelling test at school can actually enhance a child's performance. However, when a child experiences too much anxiety it can interfere with daily living.

As parents, it's helpful to know that most childhood fears and anxieties are natural and come at expected points in development. Studies support this by showing that certain fears arise in children at certain points in their lives, and that most of these fears disappear naturally with time. Parents should help children address those anxieties, but shouldn't be concerned by them.

However, when fears or anxieties interfere with the child's daily living, or if they persist beyond expected age ranges, professional support or treatment might be needed. The following guidelines may help parents understand the normal fears and anxieties at different points of development in children:

Ages 0—2

• Strangers

• Loud noises

• Sudden movements

• Separation from parents

Ages 3—6

• Imaginary figures (ghosts, monsters)

• Masks

• The dark

• New places and people

• Thunder/Lightning

• Sleeping alone

• Animals (mostly dogs)

Ages 7—12

• School performance

• Death

• Thunderstorms

• Being home alone

• Snakes and spiders

Ages 13—17

• Physical injury

• Rejection

• Embarrassment

• Death

• Doctors

• Dentists

• Making mistakes

As parents, you can help your children cope with normal fears and anxieties by providing a predictable routine and by staying calm when your child seems distressed.

You also can help to normalize children's fears. Do this by letting your children know that you had similar fears when you were young, and that these normal fears only last for a short time. For example, tell your child "It's OK to be afraid of thunder. I was afraid of thunder at your age. I found out quickly that thunder couldn't hurt me. You will too."

Sleep tight.

Dr. Jim Dalton, Psy.D., HSPP, is a licensed child psychologist, and the Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at Damar Services, Inc. Visit Damar online at www.damar.org

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