How to Soothe Your Toddler's Fears

Toddler Being Comforted
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kali9/Getty Images

As a parent, it can be incredibly distressing to watch your child become frightened. Whether it's watching them cry when you say goodbye at daycare dropoffs, or comforting them when they wake up in terror after a nightmare, it's natural to want to do everything in your power to soothe your baby's fears.

New fears are bound to pop up as your baby grows into a toddler. Scary things are a part of life and being afraid of them is a natural part of your child's development. But here's the good news: most childhood fears show up on a relatively predictable schedule, which means you can prepare yourself ahead of time and know what to expect.

In addition, most fears will go away on their own with time. This is especially true if you help provide your child with reassurance and the coping skills they need to conquer their new fears.

Baby's First Fears

When your baby is born, their biggest fears are relatively simple: they don't want to be put down, left alone, or be startled by loud noises.

"Newborns have this built-in response mechanism for 'you put me down' or 'I'm falling' or 'that's a scary loud noise that made me startle," explains Wanjiku Njoroge, medical director of the Young Child Clinic and Program Director of the Adolescent Psychiatry Fellowship at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "These are developmentally appropriate."

Next, come stranger anxiety and separation anxiety. These two developmentally appropriate fears usually first appear when your baby approaches six to eight months in age.

"Once babies are mobile and they realize that things still exist when they are out of sight, it makes them think 'where are you going? I want you to come back?'" explains Lauren Knickerbocker, child and adolescent psychologist with the Child Study Center at Hassenfeld Children's Hospital at NYU Langone.

These anxieties can peak around the age of one, she says, and they can be pretty intense. Your baby may have been fine at daycare drop-off before, but may now shriek and try to cling to you—which can make you feel really anxious, sad, or distressed. As challenging as this separation anxiety can be, it's also totally normal.

How You Can Make It Easier

It can be tough to comfort your baby at this age because they don't have words yet to explain how they're feeling. You also might struggle to know what to say or how to react to their tears. However, there are still things you can do to help your baby overcome separation anxiety:

  • Don't sneak out on them. Instead, set up a goodbye routine that always goes the same way. For example, give them a hug, then tell them you'll be back soon.
  • Play peek-a-boo. This helps teach them that even when you're out of sight, you're going to return.
  • Set up routines. This can help your child learn what to expect during goodbyes.
  • Make a clean break. In other words, don't look back at them when you leave them at daycare drop-off or give them an extra hug when you hear them cry. If you prolong the goodbye today, it will make it worse tomorrow.

Toddler Fears

As your child approaches their second birthday, they might start developing new fears that seem to come out of nowhere. For example, they might become terrified of touching the grass outside or scream at the very sight of the vacuum cleaner.

They might become afraid of dogs, water, the dark, insects, or even a crack in their dinner plate. These fears—as strange as they may be—are also totally developmentally appropriate.

Where are these fears coming from?

"From a developmental perspective, your baby is now exploring their world with this increased independence and autonomy," explains Njoroge. "So their world is now much more vast than it had been when they were unable to roll over." As a result, when they encounter something brand new for the very first time, it can be scary—even when that brand new thing is as simple as a frog hopping in the grass.

In addition, says Knickerbocker, "as children develop cognitively, they start to put things into categories so they can start to think of things as potentially risky or dangerous." Toddlers are also able to remember things for a longer period of time, which means that if something scares them—like a barking dog on the way to school or a trip to the doctor that ends in a shot—they are much more likely to remember it.

When your toddler starts to approach preschool age, they might develop new fears of the unknown. This is because they start to develop active imaginations. It explains, why for example, the dark can become much scarier than it used to be for them. Suddenly, the darkness can make them worry about what is hiding out of sight in the nighttime.

"Some kids have different ideas about what is happening in the dark," explains Njoroge, which is why some kids become afraid of monsters hiding under the bed or spiders in the nooks and crannies of their room.

How to Soothe New Fears

Chances are, your child will outgrow their new fears once they start to understand them better. But as their parent, you can also help facilitate this process by helping them understand what's scaring them and helping them develop the tools to conquer their fears.

Figure Out What's Wrong

This sounds easy, but when your child is really young, they might not have the language skills to fully articulate what's wrong. So you might have to play detective to determine what is causing their fear.

As your child gets older, you can also begin asking them about what scares them. Try to get them to be specific. For example, if your child is afraid of driving in the car at night, try to figure out what, exactly, they're afraid of. Are they nervous about getting lost or getting into an accident? Or are they scared because they can't see their parents when their car seat faces back?

Validate Their Fears

Even if their fears seem silly or irrational, try to understand and validate their emotions. Don't laugh, smirk, tease, or dismiss their fear because that can actually backfire, making their fear worse.

"Instead of saying 'that's not scary' or 'you're fine,' we want to validate. Say things like 'I see that is really hard for you' or 'I know it seems really scary when the dog barks,'" says Knickerbocker. "Partner with them and make them feel like you're in their corner."

Don't Avoid, Conquer

When your child becomes frightened, it's easy to overcompensate and try to avoid the object or situation that triggered your child's anxiety. "Some parents, in their bid to keep their child happy, become overprotective," explains Njoroge. "So if their child didn't seem to like grass, they then avoid the grass."

The problem is, if you do this, you tend to let the fear grow and become a bigger deal in the long run.

"The hallmark of anxiety taking root is avoidance," explains Knickerbocker. "Instead, what you want to do is think about how you can—even if you leave the situation for a minute to regroup—return in some small way. [This helps] your child comes away feeling like you've had some success over their fear."

So, for example, if your child is afraid of standing in the grass, it's OK to pick them up and comfort them. But don't then avoid the grass for the rest of the day. Instead, help them slowly—and at their own pace—become reacquainted with the grass by sitting on a blanket and touching a few blades of grass with their fingers. Be slow and patient, but keep re-exposing them to the scary thing.

Problem Solve Together

One of the best ways you can help your child is by helping them make a plan to conquer the fear together through small adjustments. For example, if your child is afraid of the dark, talk to them and see if they're comfortable using a nightlight or leaving the door open a crack. Or, if your child is afraid of the hand dryer in the public bathroom, remind them about it before going in the bathroom and problem solve with them how you two can get through the experience together. "Maybe that plan is to cover our ears, or go as fast as we can, or sing 'I'm a little teapot,'" says Knickerbocker.

The important thing is for your child to feel like they have some control over how they tackle the situation. So even if their idea is to use "monster spray" (a.k.a. water in a spray bottle) to get rid of all the monsters in their room after dark, or to put a favorite stuffed animal "on guard" at their door, that's OK—as long as it provides them with some comfort.

Explain How Things Work

As your child becomes older and more curious about the world, it can be helpful to explain how things work so that the mystery of the unknown is removed. If your child is afraid of being sucked down the drain when they take a bath, explain—or demonstrate—to them why that couldn't happen. "Reassure them that they're too big for that to happen, then have them experiment," Njoroge says. "Put things in the tub, like a toy boat, and show them how the toy can't fit down the drain so they won't either."

Books can also be a way of learning about new and potentially scary things, such as spiders, insects, or wolves, from a safe distance. "Reading books where there's a monster can help kids to talk about their fears and start to learn through stories how people overcome them," explains Knickerbocker.

Practice Through Pretend Play

Role-playing can be a powerful way to expose your child to what frightens them in a safe way, while also helping them prepare them to encounter the scary object or event in real life. This can be particularly effective ahead of a doctor's appointment, for instance.

"Help your kids practice giving shots to their dolls and going over what will happen," explains Knickerbocker. "This kind of simulated practice can help kids feel like they know how to tackle what lies ahead because they did it before with their dolls."

Rewards Are OK

Try not to lie or sugarcoat things. If a shot is going to hurt, be honest and let them know it might sting. But to help them prepare, it's common to offer a reward—like going to get a special breakfast or milkshake afterward—in exchange for them being brave.

Don't Share Your Fears

Some fears are learned. Kids can sense your anxiety, so if you share your fears, they might learn to develop your same anxieties. For instance, if you act afraid of planes, they might think there is something to be afraid of with planes too.

If you keep pointing out potential hazards while they play or telling them to not do something, you can make them think that everything is dangerous. This can affect their worldview and make them anxious on a day-to-day basis.

When To Call Your Pediatrician

Kids usually outgrow most of their childhood fears. However, in some situations, their fears can become debilitating unless they receive help from a professional. Here are some signs to watch for:

  • Physical symptoms: Kids who are suffering from severe anxiety often complain of physical aches and pains, such as headaches or stomachaches. Sometimes these pains might even seem illogical. For instance, some kids might say their ankle hurts because they're afraid.
  • Their fears have taken over: If your child's anxieties are interfering with normal activities or your family life, this isn't normal. So, if your child won't go anywhere anymore because they're afraid of running into a dog, or they'll never sleep at night, you should consult a doctor.
  • Trouble sleeping: Some nightmares are normal, but when nightmares are re-occurring and persistent, it could be a sign something else is going on.
  • Their fears are intensifying: If their anxieties seem to be getting worse over time instead of better, it might be a sign that their fears are becoming phobias.
  • They can't be calmed: If your child is still talking about what scared them for hours and days on end, or if their reaction to the scary trigger seems to be overly extreme, call your child's doctor.

Because childhood fears are so normal, it is important that you advocate for your child if they are experiencing these kinds of extreme reactions. That way, your pediatrician can refer you to a child psychologist or other expert for the help they need.

"The earlier we tackle anxiety in kids, the more successful we often are," says Knickerbocker.

A Word from Verywell

It's normal for your baby or toddler to be afraid of new things as they learn about their world. Most of the time, they will overcome their fears on their own. However, if you validate and reassure them along the way, you can help them get over their fears a little easier. But remember, if their anxieties are starting to take over, it's worth talking with an expert so your child can get some extra help though early intervention.

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