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Facing Toddlers’ Fears

Eeek! When little ones develop big fears, parent cues may be a factorWhen young children show persistent fear, it can be a mystery to adults – an irrational result of an overactive imagination.

But as babies grow into toddlers and they begin to experience more of the world, it’s only natural for them to cry and scream at certain things. Even though the reaction may be deafening and mystifying, take heart. Your child’s response to the situation may be perfectly normal.
While specific fears are not part of our DNA code, kids do ‘inherit’ reactions from their parents. It’s called social referencing, and it’s written all over our faces – literally. “When children respond with fear to something, such as a loud noise or a barking dog, they turn to their primary caregiver – usually their mother or father,” says Dr. Aurelia Di Santo, an assistant professor at Ryerson University’s School of Early Childhood Education. “Whereas a preschool child might have the skills to try to make some sense of the situation, a toddler will turn to see the facial reaction from their mother or father. If the parent shows fear, the child thinks ‘this is something I need to be fearful of.’” A fearful tone of voice also compounds the reaction, she says.
And while negative responses from parents can prompt children to be afraid, studies have shown that conversely, positive responses from parents can embolden children to not be afraid. So, if your toddler is developing fears of certain things, check yourself in the mirror. Here’s how to manage some common toddler fears:

WATER: Whether it’s a large swimming pool or a bathtub with a swirling drain, water can pose an obstacle for some toddlers. Perhaps for that reason, parents rush in droves to sign their children up for swimming lessons, so they can be safe around water and enjoy swimming. Most toddlers are not afraid of drowning, but rather the unfamiliar environment. As they get older, children can become afraid of putting their faces in the water. Be patient and don’t rush your child, says Di Santo. “Parents want the best for their kids, and it’s important to learn how to swim, but if your child is not ready for parent and tot lessons, don’t push them. Try again next term.” Meantime, look for lessons that take place in a smaller, warmer pool that might be more welcoming to little ones. And never use lifejackets or water wings as a replacement for adult supervision.

INSECTS: Stay calm and don’t start waving your hands all over the place when you see a creepy crawler or stinger – that’s a surefire way to ratchet up the stress and fear level in a toddler. Instead, move away at a normal pace, or use a piece of paper to take the offending critter to a new home outside.

DOGS: You visit your in-laws and the beloved family pet can’t get enough of your child. It’s understandable that a barking, licking dog might be off-putting to a toddler, but it needn’t be a deal breaker for getting along. Ask the owner to hold the dog and let it sniff you and your child together. If you’re in the park with your child in a stroller, crouch down to your child’s level and meet the dog together. Though you don’t want your child to be afraid of dogs, neither do you want them to touch dogs they’ve never met without a caregiver around to supervise.

Published May 2010

a man carrying two children

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