Fear in Children: What is Normal?
What are normal fears in children? When should a parent be concerned? The short answer? Much depends on the child’s age, the duration of the fear, how much it interferes with the child’s functioning, and how much it disrupts the family. Some fear or trepidation is a normal part of a child’s development. In fact, for all of us, fear to some degree is a good thing, keeping us from plowing forward full tilt into new situations until we are certain it’s safe. At various ages, fear of the dark, of noises at night, monsters under the bed or in the closet, getting a shot, and snakes and spiders are all common and normal.
Another common and normal fear is Stranger anxiety
. This is a form of distress that some babies and toddlers experience when they see someone they do not know. Stranger anxiety may cause the child to become quiet, stare at the stranger, cry, or hide behind a parent. It can start between six and twelve months of age. It usually goes away on its own, but may come back up to the age of two. Other common fears children experience are trepidation over attending the first day of preschool or kindergarten, and later, going into a new grade with a new teacher. Most children get over these bumps with no problem, quickly settling into their new environment.
Even for shy children, a little parental encouragement and nudge will get them over their reticence to enter new situations. Usually these children will find that once they are in the feared situation that they did just fine, and even had fun!
Other occurrences of fear or anxiety can reflect problems that are not transient or normal, and which the child may require help to overcome. Some signs that anxiety has moved from the normal range to being a problem are that the anxiety persists, causes the child considerable distress, seriously impacts the family, or interferes with the child’s normal activities, such as engaging with peers or attending school. It is estimated that anxiety disorders affect 5-25% of children, with separation anxiety disorder
comprising roughly half of these diagnoses, and occurring in greater frequency in girls than boys.
In separation anxiety disorder, there is inappropriate and excessive anxiety over separation from home or people the child is attached to. Anxiety manifests as three or more of the following:
- • Recurrent excessive distress when separation from home or major attachment figures occurs or is anticipated;
- • Persistent and excessive worry about losing major attachment figures, or fear about possible harm befalling them;
- • Persistent and excessive worry that an untoward event will lead to separation from a major attachment figure, for example, getting lost or being kidnapped;
- • Persistent reluctance or refusal to go to school or elsewhere because of fear of separation;
- • Persistently and excessively fearful or reluctant to be alone or without major attachment figures at home or without significant adults in other settings;
- • Persistent reluctance or refusal to go to sleep without being near a major attachment figure or to sleep away from home;
- • Repeated nightmares involving the theme of separation;
- • Repeated complaints of physical symptoms—such as headaches, stomachaches, nausea, or vomiting—when separation from major attachment figures occurs or is anticipated.
Parents can do a lot to give their children confidence to develop resilience and engage with the world, rather than withdraw from it. One of the most valuable things a parent can do is role model handling stress and worry in an effective way. This can start with your baby. Babies are tuned into their caregiver’s body language; showing ease around strangers can help babies feel calm. They will follow your lead! Older children can benefit from parents who express their feelings appropriately and then show how to cope effectively. For example, a parent driving in rush hour can turn, smile at their child, and say, “Wow, this is tense. I think I’ll take a slow deep breath to calm down.” After the breath, they can say, “Good, that feels so much better.” You’d be surprised how little things like that will stick with a child. Haven’t we all found ourselves doing what we saw our parents do when we were small, both positive and negative?!
We live in an anxiety-provoking age, and children and teens face unprecedented fears about their world: war, terrorism, school shootings, global warming, and the economy, to name a few. One of the reasons I wrote Wyndano’s Cloak is because I wanted to provide children with a role model for resilience and courage in the face of adversity. I wanted them to discover their unique strengths and gifts, and to believe in themselves. There is no greater gift we can give our children than to help them feel empowered and capable of facing the complexity and uncertainty of life.
A final note. This article was written for educational purposes only. It is not intended or offered as advice for anyone’s specific situation, does not purport to diagnosis or be a substitute for professional evaluation and intervention, and should not be relied on as a substitute for psychological, medical, or other professional advice. As such, Dr. Adler cannot respond to specific questions or comment on anyone’s specific situation. Concerns about your child should be discussed with your child’s pediatrician. Psychologists, Psychiatrists, Social Workers, and Marriage and Family Therapists in your area can also be consulted, and can be found through your child’s pediatrician or through the local chapters of these professions.
Wyndano’s Cloak Synopsis:
Jen has settled into a peaceful life when a terrifying event awakens old fears—of being homeless and alone, of a danger horrible enough to destroy her family and shatter her world forever.
She is certain that Naryfel, a shadowy figure from her past, has returned and is concentrating the full force of her hate on Jen's family. But how will she strike? A knife in the dark? An attack from her legions? Or with the dark arts and twisted creatures she commands with sinister cunning.
Wyndano's Cloak may be Jen's only hope. If she’s got what it takes to use it . . .
Peter Adler, PhD, has been a licensed
psychologist since 1991. Writing as A. R. Silverberry, he has won a dozen
awards, including Gold Medal Winner in the 2011 Benjamin Franklin Awards for Juvenile/Young
Adult Fiction; Gold Medal Winner in the 2010 Readers Favorite Awards for
Preteen Fiction; and Silver Medal Winner 2011 in the Bill Fisher
Award for Best First Book, Children’s/Young Adult. He lives in California, where the majestic
coastline, trees, and mountains inspire his writing. He continues to balance
his clinical practice (working with children, teens, and adults) with writing. Wyndano's Cloak is his first novel.
Follow him as an author at the links below!
Labels: A.R. Silverberry, anxiety, children, fear, Peter Adler