Between the ages of 24 and 30 months, many children can suddenly start to develop more pronounced fears. Two-year-olds, no matter what their language development, may be unable to express why they’re afraid of something, and the feeling of fear may be new to them. Fear at this age can show up as sadness, clinginess, unpredictable behavior, dramatic mood swings, or something else entirely.
As babies grow into young children and start gaining a stronger sense of themselves, the world around them may seem large and unpredictable, and some aspects of their new world are scary. Some of their fears are more easily understandable, such as insects, thunderstorms, or the dark, while others are more baffling: the toilet flushing, the vacuum running, or escalators 🤷♀️
HERE’S HOW TO RESPOND TO YOUR TWO-YEAR-OLD’S FEARS:
Take their fears seriously
Whatever they may be afraid of, try to give them an opportunity to explain it. They may not have the language necessary to express themselves yet, but showing them that you believe them can go a long way: “I can see that dog scares you, and I wonder if it’s because it’s moving really fast and barking loudly. It’s okay to feel scared, would it help if I picked you up?”
Later, you can try asking them about it again. You might ask, “what was scary to you about that dog?” and listen closely to what they have to say. If they aren’t able to say much, you can describe the scene again for them. Retelling a negative experience can feel counterintuitive, but it actually helps toddlers connect the parts of the brain they use for emotion with the parts they use for reasoning.
Talk about fear when they’re not afraid
Two-year-olds are old enough to imagine, but too young to distinguish their visions from reality. With darkness, for example, there’s a lot of unknown which can wreak havoc on some kids’ imaginations. A child who is afraid of the dark can be hard to reassure at night. Instead, try giving them a preview in the daytime of what’s to come. You can say, “pretty soon it will be nighttime, and so it will be dark in your room. But everything stays the same! Your crib, your dresser, your clothes all stay the same in the dark. It just means the sun has set and will be back in the morning.”
Practice and role play
Playing pretend in a safe environment is a great way to combat fears. If your child is afraid of a booster shot, play doctor with them—and give your child a turn to be the doctor or nurse. If they’re the one giving you the shot, they may feel some control over the situation. Give them some of the language that doctors and nurses use: “this might sting, but only for a second—and then you’re done and you can have a bandaid and a special prize to pick out.”
Read books about dealing with fear
Books like Bea Goes to the Doctor, My Favorite Nature Buddy, and others are also great tools for helping children anticipate potentially frightening events (like a trip to the doctor or an encounter with a bee). Seeing another child’s reaction and how they navigate a scary situation can reassure your child that they can do the same.
Identify real dangers
Some fears and worries are helpful: we don’t want our kids stepping into the street by themselves or petting a dog without getting permission from its owner. We don’t want to heighten fears to the point of anxiety, but we do want to reinforce the fears that protect them from harm.
Having a fear of fast cars is rational (“those cars can hurt us, so we never run out into the street”), whereas a fear of the vacuum is not. When you’re vacuuming, you can reassure your child they won’t and can’t be sucked up into the cleaner (“do you see the size of the hole? Only little things like dust and dirt can get in there, not kids and people like us”).
Let children face their fears in small doses
If your child is afraid to take a bath, for instance, you can fill a small tub with water and let them put just their hands in, or stand in it. Tell your child it’s the same water they see in the bathtub, they can play with it, and it feels good. With animals, small ones tend to be less scary. You can ask the owner of a small dog on a walk if the dog is friendly and if you can pet it. Your child may join you, but even if they aren’t ready yet, they can still watch you safely do it—and they might be ready next time, or the time after that.
Sometimes, just avoid the cause
Whether it’s rational or not, sometimes avoiding the cause—dogs, water, spiders—will be easiest on everyone. Consider giving your child a small nightlight (not too bright, if possible), crossing the street when a dog is coming, or letting them take a sponge bath now and then. In the meantime, continue talking about it; reassurances that you’re listening and you’re there for them will help them outgrow their fears.
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