4 Common Childhood Fears and How Parents Can Help

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Along the way, moms and dads can do a lot to help children learn to better grasp what's truly dangerous and what's not.

Below, Ann M. Lagges, Ph.D., clinical psychologist at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health, discusses some common kiddie fears and explains what’s typically behind them.

Clowns. “Children often are scared of things they can’t see,” says Lagges. “Take the dark, for example. Little ones don’t have the life experience to limit their imagination of what might be in the dark.” The same holds for what’s behind a clown’s mask or make-up, she explains. “A child can’t see a clown’s real face. In fact, he may wonder if a clown, or someone dressed in any sort of costume, for that matter, is even human.”

Dogs. Even the cutest canine can be frightening to a young child. That’s because he or she isn’t zeroing in on what the dog looks like as much as what the doggy does — or might do. “A child doesn’t have to have been bitten by a dog to be afraid of one,” Lagges says. “What really makes dogs scary to many little ones is the unpredictability of their actions — especially a hyper dog who hasn’t been trained not to jump on people.”

Fireworks. Sure, they’re colorful and sparkly — qualities young kids often appreciate—but fireworks also are noisy, and most children aren’t fans of loud noises, observes Lagges.  

Balloons. “Fear of balloons falls under the category of things children become conditioned to be afraid of,” says Lagges. “When she first sees a balloon, a child will likely regard it as neutral. But if the balloon pops and surprises her, she’ll come to associate all balloons as scary objects that can make a frightening and loud noise out of the blue.” Lagges says this is why some children freak out at the sight of a doctor in a white coat. “If they remember a doctor doing something that caused discomfort, like administering a shot, they’ll be terrified at any medical appointment. This is also why most pediatricians no longer wear white lab coats,” she adds.

How Parents Can Help

Lagges says most children will outgrow certain fears as they get older and have a better grasp of what’s truly dangerous and what’s not. But along the way, moms and dads can do a lot to help children learn to make these judgments. She suggests these strategies:

Be a brave role model. Gently pet the puppy you meet on the street (ask the owner first, of course) to show your child a dog won’t hurt him as long as he makes sure the dog is okay to approach first, for example.

Praise, don’t punish. Never belittle a kid for being scared, or make a big deal of it, advises Lagges. “At the same time, don’t reinforce a child’s fear or punish her by threatening her with it,” she adds. “Instead, encourage brave behavior and really praise it.”

Know your child. Some kids are more sensitive than others, says Lagges. There are those who’ll find it hilarious to see a jack-in-the-box pop up and others who’ll become hysterical. “If you know something is likely to frighten your child,” she adds, “don’t torture her by exposing her to it. She’ll learn soon enough what’s truly dangerous by watching how you approach the world.”

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