Fear & Anxiety in Preschoolers

Archived Q&A and Reviews


4-year-old's fears and compulsions

Jan 2012

My 4.8 year old daughter seems really scared of committing crimes against herself--like drowning herself or staring at the sun. She gets very worked up--for example, for a while, while she was taking a bath, she kept saying ''I can't stop think about going under water,'' until she was in tears & inconsolable. After one bath where she did repeatedly dunk her head under water, she refused to take baths any more, and will now only take showers. She has the same issue sometimes with looking at the sun, although thankfully, she hasn't had to banish herself to an indoor existence! Has anyone experienced this? Is there any way I can comfort her, and help her regain control of herself?

your question jumped out at me because I went through something similar with my preschooler.

Here are a few things that come to my mind about the scenarios you mentioned although I know you weren't necessarily asking for advice about those specific things.

the bath:

- just let her shower instead of taking a bath and don't make a big deal out of it
- always offer a bath or a shower
- give her a sponge bath
- just let her be dirty for a few weeks and don't make her wash a la mrs piggle wiggle and the radish cure. also read her that story.
- offer to take a bath with her
- offer to have her come hang out in the bathroom while you take a bath
- let her pick out some cool new bath toys
- tons of bubbles
- show her how to hold her nose and go underwater
- teach her about whales and how they breath
- or fish and gills is always interesting
- if she's in the bath and talking about being scared say: that does sound scary how about you get out now and we go read a story (or whatever, but let her feel like she can remove herself from whatever is scaring her)
- ask her about it at some other time when she is feeling happy and talkative
- tell her about something you are scared of and how you deal with it.

the sun:
- offer her your sunglasses
- let her pick out her own awesome princess/superhero sunglasses
- let her pick out a new hat or wear one of your hats
- teach her all about the sun and planets
- say, instead of staring at the sun how about we go inside a paint a picture of the sun
- teach her how the sun makes plants grow
- plant some sunflower seeds
- teach her all about eyeballs
- teach her the words to You are my sunshine
- acknowledge the fear and then distract her - like, oh yes that does sound scary, how about we get in the car and listen to some music on our way home

just some thoughts on ways you could deal with her fears. I remember my son grew out of most of his fears in a few months but others lingered annoyingly.

I guess all that could be boiled down to: don't make a big deal out of it, let her feel safe and like she can remove herself from a scary thing, distract her or teach her some cool fact about whatever. 5 year olds are little sponges and love new facts and knowing about something can make things seem less scary. anon

Dear Jinjer, Since it is normal for preschoolers to go through cycles of insecurity including fears, a first good step is to find a way to give a feeling of control over the issue, while avoiding reassuring them. I especially like it when you can turn it into a game and use humor and imagination. So, instead of saying there is no such thing as monsters, we go through a lot of ''monster spray'' in my home (an imaginary bottle of stuff monsters just hate). This gives them a sense of power and teaches them that they can solve problems. Maybe you can get your daughter a snorkel to use in the bath, a magic spell that turns her into a fish, real or imaginary sun glasses to put on and take off outside, a magic necklace that holds down her eyes, etc. It's usually a mistake to simply say ''your okay'', ''there is nothing to worry about'', ''you can just not look at the sun''. You'll know you need more help if her fears start making her or you change your behaviors in significant ways. Good luck. Roy

3-year-old's fear of group activities

June 2010

My 3YO daughter is a lively, gregarious, very active, pretty fearless kid...except when we end up in ''circle time'' settings, be it story time, the end of a class, music class, you name it. Then she climbs behind whichever adult is with her and practically strangles them from trying to hang on so tight. Even when there's nothing ''asked'' of her (e.g., singing, clapping, or doing something)--even when all that's expected is to sit and listen-- she freaks out and tries to hide and/or run away. She won't sit on a parent's lap or even beside; she uses us as her shields, so to speak. She's otherwise a totally happy and un-shy kid (after a few minutes of warm-up) in social settings. I worry about her transition to preschool and how that will be for her if she's so scared even with us. I've asked her to explain what she's feeling then, and she says she's afraid of the person in charge, but in some cases she even knows and loves the leader (and engages with them freely) outside of that setting, so I'm a bit puzzled. The fear part is clear; of what she's afraid is less clear and she doesn't have the language yet to go into that kind of detail.

Is this relatively common? Have you dealt with this in your own or (if you're a teacher or caregiver) other children? Any strategies to help her cope? Thanks in advance! --Mama of a part-time wallflower

Three-year-olds are often very fearful of both real things and imaginary ones; most of them outgrow these fears by the time they're five. My older child was quite withdrawn in social situations when he was three (I remember one birthday party at that age at which he went and stood in a corner where there were no other kids), but gradually he became more comfortable with groups of kids as he got older, and now (at 8) gets along well with his classmates and has plenty of friends. Don't despair.

I saw the response to your post and had to add some words. My daughter, too, is very shy in group settings and tends to cling to me, even though at home, and in familiar surroundings, she is happy and talkative. I've also been very shy all my life, and group activities still make me very nervous. I think the best you can do is support and reassure her, but don't force her to do something that makes her nervous (it doesn't help). Some kids outgrow the shyness; some don't. If it becomes a problem (i.e. interferes with her ability to enjoy preschool and school) you can get professional help. But since your daughter is very young, I wouldn't worry too much quite yet. As I said, I've been very shy all my life, but I've found ways to function despite my nervousness, and had no problems either in preschool or in school. shy

My son, now 6, has always been very reserved in groups or around unfamiliar people, but very lively at home. I feel this is not so unusual, although my friend (with 15+ yrs working in early childhood education) feels that it's not seen a lot because parents ''squash'' this type of trait out of their kids. I want my son to know it's OK to be just the way he is. I feel that he is just a lot more aware of his surroundings than other kids (don't mean to sound judgmental -- all kids have different strengths and weaknesses); thus he is more wary about interacting with groups. I suppose when he was younger he might have had some SPD symptoms that I was oblivious to (see the symptoms checklist at sensory-processing-disorder.com). That's probably why he HATED Gymboree class as a tot. (In retrospect, I can't believe I dragged him to those crowded, noisy classes!) His temperament is called ''slow- to-warm.'' Being an extraverted mom, it took me a long time to get over my frustration with his group-averse behavior, his unwillingness to greet a relative, play with a child at a party, etc. Part of me just wanted him to do ''what the other kids could do.'' But I learned patience and understanding; I read the book ''The Highly Sensitive Child.'' Attending a Waldorf kindergarten where there is so much kindness and everyone seems to appreciate individual differences really helped him open up. The oldest girl in the class said she really likes my son because ''unlike other boys, he listens!'' When he speaks out loud in class, kids pay attention! If he holds another child's hand in Circle Time, they feel very special! Sometimes we say, ''He's not shy; he's selective.'' He blossomed tremendously in the past year. But back when he was three, it took many weeks to work up to attending storytime at the public library. We started out against the back wall, eventually moved forward little by little. I made sure to stay late to interact with the librarian, help her clean up, etc. This contact helped him grow more comfortable with her. Eventually he was the one telling me he wanted to go to storytime. (It also helps to show up early at events before the place is crowded.) So I guess I just recommend patience, understanding, and baby steps. I wouldn't force your child into stressful situations. Love your child the way she is. Good luck. Extraverted mama who used to be shy kid

3-year old is scared of a lot of things

Jan 2008

I'm wondering if the fear my son feels is normal development or not. He seems to be scared of a lot of things and it stops him wanting to do things. For example, he fell off his bike, didn't get hurt really, but now is scared to get on it or the jogging stroller because they will tip over.

He was in a major car accident this summer - he wasn't hurt but it involved multiple rollovers and a trip to the emergency room on a backboard. It was very scary. I'm wondering if his fears now are typical for kids his age or if they are in some way related to the accident and therefore if I should have him see someone.

I imagine the accident has something to do with your son's fear, but I think it's also normal for kids this age to have a lot of random fears and sometimes take a long time to process scary events. My daughter is 3.5 and she's gone through long periods of being very scared of things. We saw a semi-truck tip over once and after that she talked a lot about our car tipping over, driving too fast, etc. The level of fear reaches different heights -- for a while she would get really scared when we went out of the house and ask, in a sad, pitiful little voice, to go home right away. It was hard do deal with, especially hard to see her in such distress. But we keep talking to her about her fears and try to come up with different strategies -- ways for her to conquer her fear -- she likes to hear about our experiences (''when mama was a little girl X happened to her too...''). She likes to hear stories about pretend kids going through similar situations and how they resolved them. I'm sure it wouldn't hurt to get your son seen by someone, but also know that he will probably grow out of his fears with support and patience (as hard as it is to maintain sometimes) from you. anon

It could well be that he still remembers the car accident, either consciously or unconsciously. I recommend checking out Joan Lovett's book Small Wonders, which deals with healing childhood traumas using a technique called EMDR. She is a developmental pediatrician in Berkeley, and so you could make an appointment with her if you think it might be useful.

My son was very ginger on things like suspension bridges, balance beams, swings and scooters. He seemed to have an anxiety about safety that we couldn't understand. We thought it was purely a mental thing but it turned out that he physically could not feel safe because he had sensory integration issues that affected his ability to know where his limbs were in space and to feel balanced on something like a swing or a scooter. This is something for which early intervention matters, so if you think it could be something of the sort you might have him evaluated by an OT if you are at all concerned that it could be something like this. Mary Kawar and Rita Montez in El Cerrito are excellent.

The other thing I wonder is whether he was bumped or jostled in some way on the head during the accident and if head trauma could possibly be at issue, even if the emergency room docs didn't catch that. You could consult with Dr. Lovett to see if the symptoms suggest head trauma. Good luck. hope this helps

WOW! What an experience you BOTH went through. I would say, on the one hand, that three year olds can get fearful, and it's easy for them to overgeneralize from, say, a minor bike fall to other wheeled things. Kids vary a lot in how fearful they are (how vivid their imaginations are?). One the other hand, this must have been pretty traumatic, and it might well help him tremendously to meet with someone a few times to do some play therapy around his fears and see if that can alleviate some of this. It's worth helping him work through this now, would be my view. Best of luck! anon

YES I would say his fears are related to the accident-I think even an adult might be afraid of vehicles after that! I can't even imagine being in a rollover-it must have been absolutely terrifying for him-I would certainly avoid cars in that situation for quite a long time if I had the option. Maybe since he doesn't have control of whether he can go in the car or not- he's expressing his fears with bikes, etc. Does he need to see a therapist? Can't hurt-and could really help. Julie

4-year-old is suddenly afraid of familiar things

Sept 2007

My daughter is suddenly afraid of a lot of familiar things. She's afraid of the front door, her room, the dark, the living room, outside... It's usually when these places are dark-ish (even before dusk as the light begins to wane is scary for her), but not neccesarily. It's not that I think being afraid of the dark is abnormal, just for her it is. Last week - in fact, her entire life - she wasn't afraid of the dark but now she is. How do I help her get past this? What's it all about?

We had another baby about 5 months ago and he sleeps in our room every night. I can see that this new fear could possibly be a strategy for sleeping with the 3 of us in our room; but she's not just scared at bedtime or about her bedroom. She's been scared of the stained glass window on our front door in the morning! Jenny

Hi - Both my kids developed fears around the time they turned four. Fear of the dark, night-shadows, night-sounds, racoons, barking dogs, etc. and both had nightmares around that time too. Things they were never afraid of before. Both grew out of it within a few months although it did mean quite a few nights of going in and reassuring them that they were safe and yes, sometimes bringing them into our bed for the night. There is a series of books called ''Your One Year Old'', ''Your Two Year Old'', etc. by Louise Bates Ames and Carol Chase Haber. I believe it was in ''Your Four Year Old'' that they discussed the developmental stage that kids go through around their fourth year and the fearful stage that is a normal part of their development. Reading their books has really helped me get through the expected developmental changes that we don't expect as parents. All Sleeping Soundly Now

My son, now 6, became very afraid of the dark at around this age. He isn't afraid anymore, so I think it is something that is common at that age. He was afraid of the dark closet and the dark corners in his room. He said he had bad dreams. We brought in some extra lamps and illuminated all the corners - just inexpensive nightlight type lamps that take a very low wattage bulb. Ikea has some good ones. We left the closet light on all night. So the overhead light wasn't on, but there were no dark patches. That helped. When he came into our room, we'd just walk him back to his bed and tuck him in and make sure there no dark places that were bothering him. Getting him a dreamcatcher to hang over his bed and reading a story about dreamcatchers really helped a lot (he felt it protected him from the bad dreams). Hope that helps! Ginger

I think it's developmental. My daughter also had no problem with the dark when she was younger, and in fact wanted the room pitch black when she went to sleep. Right around the time she turned four, she also suddenly became afraid. I've been dealing with it by leaving the hall light on for her, but not her room light as she requests because it keeps her up. Good luck. anon