Fear and reason in toddler imagination

Parents are protectors. They create safe, secure lives for little children to learn and grow. They tell stories about the world so that children may learn about danger and take the side of good over evil. Parents carve tools out of love and shields out of experience that children use to become competent, capable, and masterful. And, regardless of all the best effort, young children experience doubt and fear. The world is scary sometimes, especially to small children just trying to figure out their place in it.

Toddlers fear monsters, the dark, the vacuum, the bathtub, neighborhood dogs, life-size favorite story characters, and a whole assortment of unpredictable, unfamiliar things. Fears are an undeniable part of childhood. The most diligently aware parents can’t keep every fear away because fears come from within the child, even when they appear to be “caused” by an outside experience (like a movie or a daytime experience).

Fears are children’s emotions made visible. As children grow into toddlers and preschoolers, they experience deeper and more complicated emotions like anger, frustration, jealousy, disappointment, and even sadness. These new emotions make children feel out of control and uncertain then take the form of monsters or other “irrational” fears (getting swallowed by bathtub drains or the splash of poop falling into the toilet). Fears are part of children growing and managing a complicated world, their inner world and the outer world.

The Don’ts

1. Don’t dismiss a fear as meaningless or trivial. It’s real to your child.
2. Don’t try to “rationalize” it away. Words and reasonable explanations alone do not get to the heart of the fear.
3. Don’t feed the fear. Giving in to a fear only makes it grow.
4. Don’t force or push your child into a fearful situation. Throwing them “into the pool” when they are afraid of water compounds the fear with distrust.
5. Don’t laugh at your child, mock the behavior or tease your child. It only creates greater isolation.

Early Childhood is not Rational
Young children are learning to think rationally while simultaneously living in a world of magic – with talking animals, tooth fairies, and unusual causal connections like a kiss on a booboo making pain go away or closing your eyes to become invisible. Magical thinking is a stage in cognitive development, not something children can be talked out of.

Children are concrete thinkers on their way to becoming abstract thinkers. Ideas are characters in stories that can be rearranged and reconsidered from different perspectives. So, children on their way to become thinkers and problem solvers need tangible, vivid representations of ideas and concepts in order to build a foundation and the patterns for thinking. That’s why routines, repetition, and physical reminders are essential to children learning and growing.

Helpful Responses to Children’s Fear

1. Listen to your child. Acknowledge the fear and reassure verbally and/or physically. “You got scared – I’m here now.” Be calm, present and available for comfort.
2. Describe the situation to help your child understand what’s happening around me. For example, “that dog was so loud, he made you jump”; “you don’t like being in the tub when the water is going down the drain”; “there are a lot of people in the room and it feels too crowded right now.”
3. Look for ways to help your child regain a sense of power or control. It may mean taking a minute to calm down or waiting and watching until your child reorients himself to the situation. It may mean allowing your child to say “no” – for example, “no, I don’t want you to wear that scary mask or that funny wig”. It may mean you flapping your arms and doing a rain dance louder than the loudest thunder.
4. As children become more skilled at problem solving, they can often answer the question “what do you need?”. The challenge here is to guide children to solutions that work in the long run not a quick fix for today – bringing a child to your bed tonight but not tomorrow only adds stress and undermines skill-building while leaving on the light or spraying monster spray can be repeated night after night.
5. Imagination and pretend play are the best age-appropriate antidote to fear. Play is where children manipulate events and feelings from their experience and integrate them into effective choices. They practice strategies and rearrange the facts until they regain control and understanding. Why are children drawn to dinosaur play? Because they are powerful! Children need mighty roars and sharp claws (pretend of course) to conquer very real fears. Children need books, stories, stomping shoes, spray bottles and magic brooms to chase away the things that bother them.

Magical thinking creates ordinary childhood fears. So, imagination must be a significant part of the response to conquer ordinary childhood fears, along with loving grown-ups who are always there to protect the children. The best protectors create the safe space for children to successfully battle their own monsters.

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