Monday, November 24, 2008

2 ½ year-old Fears


I recently read your book, Positive Discipline: The First Three Years and I cannot tell you how much better I understand my 2 1/2 year old son! I was hoping you could direct me toward some reading material, or even offer a suggestion though. He is a very bright boy, happy at home. However, he is constantly telling us he is "scared" of other kids, and sometimes adults too. It seems to really hold him back socially. We had a psychologist meet with him, but she stated he is just high strung. I somehow think there is more to it... If you could point me in a new direction?

Thank you,



Hi Erin, I can’t tell for sure since I don’t have more information, but I’m going to make some guesses. First let me tell you that this will pass. The less energy you give it, the quicker it will pass.

1. It could be that he really has “decided” to be scared for whatever reason he has made up. Still, to him, the fear is real. The best you can do is comfort him briefly; validate his feelings, “I can see that you are very scared of this;” and then have faith in him to deal with his fear. He will learn that his fear will pass. It is very empowering for children to learn that they can deal with the ups and downs of life. When parents rescue and pamper, children don’t have the opportunity to develop resilience and a sense of their own capability. If you pay too much attention to his fears (give them too much energy) that could lead to the next guess.

2. It could be that he has learned that being scared is a good way to get lots of “undue attention” from you. If this is the case, I would still give the same recommendations as above. You might add problem-solving by asking him for his ideas on how to deal with his fears.

For even more ideas I have included an excerpt from Positive Discipline A-Z by Jane Nelsen, Lynn Lott, and H. Stephen Glenn, which also provides an example of how this books provides many possible solutions for just about any behavior challenge you can think of.
Fears (Children)

“My child has nightmares and complains about monsters in his room. He seems so fragile compared to other children his age. He’s afraid to leave my side. This doesn’t seem normal to me.”

Understanding Your Child, Yourself, and the Situation

“A bruised knee can mend, but bruised courage lasts a lifetime.”1 Sometimes children have fears because we don’t help them deal with the unknown by showing them how to do things in small steps. Most children have some fears, but they become bigger when others make fun of them, call them babies, or tell them that it’s not okay to be scared or to cry, or label them as “overly-sensitive.” Fears also get bigger when parents feel sorry for children and try to over-protect them. Then children don’t develop the confidence that they can handle some discomfort.

Fear is usually about the unknown (which is why a fear of the dark is common and usually passes). However, at other times children have good reason (such as bullies or sexual abuse) to be afraid. It’s your job to know when to protect your children and when to help them without over- protecting them.


Don’t laugh at, minimize, judge, or discount your children’s fears. Contrarily, don’t over-indulge or over-protect or try to explain away your child’s fears.

Listen when your children tell you what they are afraid of. Verify their feelings, such as saying, “You’re afraid of dogs because they might bite you, and you wish the dog would go away and leave you alone.” Sometimes, just having their feelings validated is enough to lessen the fear.
Help your children find ways to handle situations when they are afraid. Help them explore several possibilities so they feel they have some choices. You might ask, “What would help you the most right now--a flashlight, a teddy bear, or a nightlight?” Telling them not to be afraid isn’t helpful; looking for solutions is.

Don’t be manipulated by your children’s fears. Offer comfort, but don’t give them special service or try to fix their feelings for them. It is important for children to learn that they can handle their fears, even though it is uncomfortable. Help them problem solve (as above) so they learn they can handle their fears themselves. Letting children sleep with you when they are afraid is a subtle way of saying, “You can’t handle this. Let me fix it for you.”
Encourage your children to deal with difficult situations in small steps. If they are afraid of the dark, put a night light in their room. If they don’t think they can sleep in their own rooms, fill their hands with your kisses and tell them every time they miss you to open their hands and take out a kiss. If they think there are monsters in the closet or under the bed, do a search with them before bedtime and let them sleep with a flashlight.
Listen carefully. Are your children trying to tell you that someone is hurting them or that you are doing something that is frightening them? Take what they say seriously.
Sometimes children’s fears are irrational and they can’t explain them. They may need your support and reassurance until the fear goes away.
Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Problems

There are many wonderful children’s books dealing with fears that you can read with your children so they can see they aren’t alone.

If there is a scary show on television or a scary movie, discuss ahead of time with your child whether it is a good idea for him to see it. If you both agree he is ready to watch, discuss how you can be supportive. (See Booster Thought 1.)

Don’t lay your fears on your children. If your children decide they are ready to try something, work with them in small steps to make it safe and then let go instead of stopping them from doing things you are afraid of yourself. If you’re too afraid, arrange for a friend or relative to do the activity with your child.

It’s okay to share your fears, but don’t expect your children to have the same ones you do. Telling your children about a fear that you conquered may be comforting to them. It will assure them that fears are normal.

Ask your children if they would be willing to try out scary things two to three times before deciding against them.

Don’t push your children into doing things they are afraid of such as swimming or riding a horse. Some parents insist that their children do these things in spite of their fears and create lifetime fears in their children, as well as a strong feeling of inadequacy.

Turn off the TV and stop immersing your kids in the news which is filled with violence and natural disasters. Too much TV has been the trigger for many children’s fears, and rightly so.

Life Skills Children Can Learn

Children can learn that it’s okay to feel fear, but they don’t have to be immobilized by it. There is someone who will take them seriously and help them deal with their fears so they aren’t so overwhelming. They learn they can trust their parents to protect them from dangers they can’t handle by themselves.

Parenting Pointers

If your children are afraid to leave your side, spend time with them, but also create situations where they can be away from you for short times. Many a preschool teacher has had to pull clinging, screaming children off their parents’ legs. Minutes later, with the parents gone, the children have settled in and are happily playing with the other children.

Don’t force your children into situations that are overwhelming to them just so they will be brave. Some children learn by jumping into the pool, and others watch from the sidelines for a summer before they put their faces in the water. Respect their differences and have faith.

Booster Thoughts

Ten-year-old Lisa decided she wanted to watch Halloween III, an extremely scary movie. Her parents said they thought the movie was too scary, but she insisted on watching it. No one in her family wanted to watch the movie with her, so Lisa decided she would watch it by herself. Her parents said they would be in the next room, and if she got scared, she could come in for reassurance.

Lisa’s mother made her a bowl of popcorn, and her father helped her carry in her stuffed animals and special quilt. He turned on all the lights at Lisa’s request and left the room as the movie began.

About ten minutes later, Lisa came into the living room and said, “I don’t think I’m really in the mood to watch that movie tonight. Maybe I’ll watch it another time.”

Some children do what they really don’t want to do so they can win the power struggle with their parents. Lisa’s parents supported her to learn for herself how much she could handle.

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