From darkness to spiders to heights, young children tend to have a lot of fears. Left unchecked, these fears can snowball. It's important to meet the child where he is and help him work through his fears with art and play so that the fears will decrease over time.

Fear is a basic human emotion, and children tend to experience different fears at different stages of development. While those shifting fears sometimes send parents into a panic about childhood anxiety, it's important to remember that fear can actually be a good thing. The fear response can come in handy when it alerts us to danger. It's that little voice inside your head that tells you to walk faster at night when a stranger creeps up just a little too close or to jump back onto the curb when that car comes racing toward you from out of nowhere.

But sometimes little kids experience a heightened fear response, and that can cause excess worries.

Helping with common childhood fear involves identifying the fear (naming it), talking about it, not ignoring or making fun of the child about it, and finding a creative strategy to bring play or laughter to get through the fear.

The imagination is a powerful tool, and when children lack details they tend to rely on the imagination to fill in the gaps. In fact, most childhood fears stem from experiences that children can't quite understand.

All children are different and they each have their own responses to fear, but many children seek constant reassurance, avoid fearful situations, become agitated, ask for help repeatedly and/or experience sleep disturbances (difficulty falling or staying asleep) when their fear response is heightened.

Andrea Nair, MA, CCC, psychotherapist and parenting educator, suggests taking a few steps when confronting childhood fears, "Helping with common childhood fear involves identifying the fear (naming it), talking about it, not ignoring or making fun of the child about it and finding a creative strategy to bring play or laughter to get through the fear."

Awareness of common childhood fears helps parents know what to look out for and when to seek assistance. Kids can develop specific fears in response to any situation that feels scary (yes, even TV shows), but there are some fears that seem to crop up at certain stages of development.

Common preschool fears

  • Imaginary creatures
  • Noises at night
  • Darkness
  • Dogs or other animals
  • Masks (think Halloween)
  • Potential burglars

Common school-age fears

  • Natural disasters
  • Injury
  • Fears related to TV/media viewing
  • Fear of failure
  • Illness or death
  • Doctors or shots
  • Animals
  • Snakes and spiders

While some childhood fears might seem small to parents, it's important to remember that the child feels very scared when confronted with, or thinking about, the specific trigger. Cheryl Eskin, LMFT, marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles, California, warns parents to avoid downplaying fears, "Parents shouldn't belittle childhood fear because that can cause children to feel ashamed of their fears instead of learning to cope with those scary feelings."

Rely on empathy

Kids need to feel heard and be able to share their feelings in a safe environment.

"Saying things like 'you're too old for this' or 'boys aren't supposed to get scared' or forcing bravery in some way doesn't help kids learn to cope," says Eskin. "Kids need to feel heard and be able to share their feelings in a safe environment."

Ask specific questions to get a better sense of what triggered your child's fears. Listen to your child when she shares her fears and share your own memories of feeling afraid when you were a child. When you empathize with your child, you'll normalize your child's fears and help her see that fears can be overcome.

Play away fear

While an active imagination can sometimes increase fears, it can also be used to decrease fears. Using puppets or other small figurines to play through the scary scenario and play through a solution to the scary scenario gives kids some control over their fears. Kids often feel scared when they feel like they have no control over the trigger. Play puts kids back in the driver's seat and helps them work through those overwhelming emotions.

Draw it out

Art is another powerful tool when it comes to coping with fear. Fold a piece of paper twice to create four boxes. Ask your child to draw the scary scenario scene-by-scene in the boxes. Help your child look at the drawing to identify the box where he really begins to feel scared. Help your child identify potential solutions to the problem. Give your child a second piece of paper and ask him to draw the scary scenario again, this time adding a solution at the scariest part.

Teach self-talk

Talking back to irrational thoughts is a great way to calm fearful thoughts, but it takes practice. Divide a paper in half. In one column, help your child write down his fearful thoughts. On the other side, help him come up a list of power thoughts to use when talking back to the scary thoughts. For a child who fears monsters under the bed, for example, a good power thought might be, "Monsters aren't real so there can't be a monster under my bed."

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