Monday, December 7, 2009

Preschoolers and Fears

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Children get scared. It happens and it is natural. Adults get scared! Think of yourself. Do you ever get scared? I get scared at night when my husband is not home. I am a very logical and rational person, and I try to control my imagination and talk myself down, but it still happens! If a logical, rational adult can get scared, then you know an imaginative little child new to this world can get scared.

Many of the fears your child has will seem silly to you. It will be irrational. You child might be afraid of monsters. Well, you know there is no such thing as monsters, but your child doesn't. The only reality that matters here is the reality your child sees.

Now, knowing your child can't control the fear is great, but it doesn't make dealing with the fear any more enjoyable. Your preschooler might suddenly be scared of going to bed at night and will take you back to your babyhood days. Many times, you have another baby in the house, so dealing with it all can be overwhelming.

When your child has fears, this is not a time to return to cry it out. You first want to try to discover what is causing the fear in your child. You then want to manage fears. You then want to try to minimize fears by using that imagination to your advantage.

On Becoming Preschoolwise has a list of common fears (pages 193-195):

  • Natural Fears: There are certain fears that are present in most people. A fear of some animal (spiders, dogs, snakes, etc.). A fear of strangers, a fear of being left alone, a fear of the dark, etc. Some of these natural fears can be compounded by the reaction of parents. When I think of my children in this situation, I think of bugs. I am scared of spiders. I just am. Throughout Brayden's life, there have been many times that I have reacted strongly to a spider. As a result, Brayden is scared of spiders. I hope his wife isn't! Recognizing this, I was very careful with Kaitlyn. She has more of a natural fear of bugs than Brayden. I have been careful to show no reaction and my husband has worked with both children to not be scared of bugs. More about that below.
  • Fear of Unfamiliar: This can be a person, event, situation, activity, etc. Children have no way of assessing if their fear is founded or not. If they are scared, they are scared. Brayden has this fear tied to trampolines. He is just scared of getting on the trampoline because he has little to no experience with it. Even after playing with neighbors with a trampoline and watching them jump on it for months, he is still scared and will not get on it with anyone else.
  • Imagination: The imagination can naturally create fear in your child. Monsters, ghosts, etc. There are many things your child's imagination can create.
  • False Beliefs: Some fears develop out of bad experiences. Brayden has gone to the dentist since he was one. He has never been scared. Last January, he had surgery on his thumb. It was at the hospital. He was very brave, but the experience scared him. Interestingly, he has no fear with the doctor still, but is terrified of the dentist. He worries about the "blue curtain" again. I think having to lay down and open his mouth makes him feel vulnerable. Because of this fear Brayden now has of the dentist, Kaitlyn is now scared at the dentist, too. False beliefs can be from the child's own experience, or from the fears of friends, parents, siblings, or other people close to the child.
  • Parental Anxiety: Parents can instill fear in their child with constant warnings "be careful..." "that dog might bite you..." "if you climb a tree, you will break your leg..." I think this situation is very common with an oldest child parent and their oldest child. Most oldest children are very cautious. If you are an oldest child, be careful about how you warn your oldest child. I have had to be very careful with Brayden. With Kaitlyn, however, my warnings are never enough to scare her :). She is fearless in many ways. Preschoolwise points out that this is a problem for constant warnings. Sometimes, you definitely need to warn your children. But you should have to be constantly warning your child.
  • Television: This is my own addition. Brayden had a period when he was really scared at night for bed. After analyzing the situation, my husband and I felt like the television was largely to blame. Brayden doesn't watch anything drastic. He is only allowed movies rated G--and not all G movies are fair game. He only watches PBS kids on TV. But television coupled with the budding imagination can create some wild things.

Some fears can be managed. Some fears just need time for your child's reasoning ability to catch up and overcome it. Others need education. Some might need all three. Here are more ideas (pages 195-198):

What Not To Do:

  • Pressure: Don't force your preschooler to "face his fears."
  • Mock: Don't ridicule your preschooler for being scared. Laughing at him or telling him he is a baby isn't going to make him less scared.
  • Dictate: Don't command him to not be scared.
  • Dismiss: My addition. Don't simply say, "there is no such thing as monsters" and brush your child off.

What To Do:

  • Compassion: Show love and empathy.
  • Educate: Knowledge is power. The more you know about something, the less scared you will be of it. I remember when I went through my birth education class before Brayden was born. There were certain things I didn't want to know and I did not want to touch. I definitely didn't want to see that epidural needle! But the more exposure I had to it, the less scared I became. When the actual birth came, none of it scared me (of course, I might have done anything to get that baby out!). For certain fears your child has, you can educate him. Is he scared of puppies? If so, teach him about puppies. Why are they so bouncy? Is he being playful or mean? Can the snake get out of the cage? What is the science behind thunder? I find education very powerful with Brayden who has a very logical personality.
  • Introduce: Let your child get acquainted with fears. You can role play, spend time with, or show by example. I have hoped that Brayden would get over his fear of the dentist, and while he has improved, I have decided some role-play will help. I let him be the dentist on me and I will be the dentist on him.
  • Exposure: This is my addition and along the same lines as introduce and educate. My husband did a great job of exposing my children to bugs. He would catch a bug and hold it and have my children gather around. He would then tell them about the parts of a bug and encourage them to touch it. I would do the same (I am so brave!). Brayden is no longer scared of bugs and Kaitlyn could once again play outside in the summer :)
  • Removal: Remove things you find create fear in your child. If TV makes it worse, stop watching TV for a while. Limit the TV and closely monitor the shows watched.
  • Substitution: Teach your child to have courage. Encourage your child to be brave. Instead of saying, "don't be scared" say, "Be brave!"
  • Prevention: I am amazed at how much better children handle things when they have fair warning. Remember that your child hasn't been around as long as you have. He doesn't know what to expect. If you are going to a fireworks show, tell him they will be bright and loud. Just saying "we are going to see fireworks" doesn't tell your child what to expect unless he has done it before.
  • Non-conflict Training: This is my addition. I will talk to Brayden and tell him monsters aren't real, but I do it in the day when he is not scared. He knows they aren't real. He accepts that. That doesn't mean he never gets scared. It is like me :) He knows it is irrational, but the emotion is still present. Even Kaitlyn has caught on to this idea. Today she told me "there is no such thing as owies?" She had an owie but was trying to talk herself out of it. She doesn't grasp the concept here, but she is working at it :) It is funny what younger siblings glean.
  • Pray: My addition. This is our best thing to do when Brayden is scared. We say a prayer. I like to have Brayden say the prayer. I will ask him, "Do you believe Heavenly Father can protect you? Do you believe he can help you feel safe?" he tells me yes, then he prays. It is a sincere prayer and warms my heart to see him exercising such faith.

This is my addition. This is an opportunity to use that imagination to your advantage. I think this needs to be used wisely. Some of these things I would never use on Brayden. He is so logical and accepting of reality that some of these things would only perpetuate his fear.

  • Monster Repellent: Many of you may have heard of the idea to get a squirt bottle and spray it around the room, calling it monster repellent. I know some people put glitter in the water. Some decorate the outside of the bottle. This is something I wouldn't use on Brayden. For him, this would tell him monsters are real and he needs repellent to keep them away.
  • Special Item: You might be able to find an item that will make your child feel brave. My husband gave Brayden his recorder (a musical instrument) and told him it would help protect him. Brayden slept with that thing for months!
  • Animals: Whenever Brayden gets scared, then best imagination thing for us to do is set his stuffed animals up around his bed to watch over him.
  • Protect: It can be good to say, "I know you are scared, but our job is to protect you. We will make sure nothing happens to you. That is our job."

Night mares and night terrors happen in the night some time. For night mares, we always go to Brayden, hug him, and stay with him until he falls asleep again. Sometimes his logic takes over and he feels fine and says, "Why are you still here?" so we leave :). Other times, he falls asleep as we rub his back.

For night terrors, there isn't really anything you can do. We go to him, but he is still asleep (though it seems like he is awake). He will be in my arms screaming, "I want Mama!" You just have to wait for it to pass. He usually goes right to sleep when it is over with not problem. We have found that night terrors are more common if he is overly tired. They are also more common if he is too hot or too cold, or if he has air blowing directly on him (like from a room fan).

If your child has yet to experience fears, you might be wondering when this will happen. Brayden first started getting night terrors around age two. His fears before bed happened a few months before he turned three, right around the time his imagination really took off.

Brayden has always been my logical child, and he isn't extremely imaginative. Kaitlyn's was using her imagination in full force before she turned two, so I fully expected her to have lots of nightmares. She is 2.5 and has yet to have a nightmare (knock on wood!).

My husband is very imaginative and had lots of nightmares. I am logical and really only had them when I had fevers. There is no way to know for sure if/when your child will have them. Just be prepared to be patient, loving, understanding, and kind when it does happen.



Val said...

totally agree about television. My 18 month old son is terrified of Thomas the Train. When he comes on, or even if he hears the theme music in the other room, he starts screaming and will either run to me or hide under the table. Must be the shifty eyes from the trains...

Kristy Shreve Powers said...

My son was one who did well with a "Magic Spray Bottle" by the side of the bed, but I really get what you say, how that says that these fears are real and true. I think it's a good thing for kids to have one concrete action to do. You mentioned prayer. That's a great example. At the same time as the spray bottle, we read books from the library about lightning and thunder. It was unbelievable how much a few books could do for him. My husband also started talking with him about spiders and how cute they are. Now when he sees those little harmless ones, he says it's a cute spider and it's his best friend. (Okay, we've got a ways to go on the best friend concept.) Thanks for this post. These fears can be tough to deal with.

Gung Ho Babywise Promoter said...

I like the white screen instead of the dark screen. It's easier to read :) And the background and title look really nice too!

Plowmanators said...

Val, that is too bad! But lol about the shifty eyes!

Plowmanators said...

You are welcome Kristy! They are hard because you have to figure out how to deal with the child's view or reality...and that can be hard to 1-do and 2-figure out

Plowmanators said...

Thanks Gung Ho!

Scott and Jenny said...

My son is a little over 2 1/2 years old, and has all of a sudden started freaking out at bed time. He is totally fine with the bedtime routine, great while reading a book, and then after we say good night and's like a delayed reaction. About a minute after we leave the room he starts screaming and crying, and gets out of bed to come tell us that he "woke up". He is usually such a great sleeper during the night - 10 to 12 hours, and takes great naps during the day, and up until this past weekend NEVER got out of his bed on his own. Also, he has been waking up at 5:00 in the morning, getting out of bed crying, and coming to find me to hold him. I think he may be developing fears, but I am so confused as how to handle this situation. I don't want to ignore it, but I also don't want to slide backwards into bad sleep habits. I ask him what is wrong, and he says "I just woke up crying." I asked him once if he was scared, and he said yes..but couldn't tell me of what. So I'm not really sure what is going on. Any advice is greatly appreciated!

Plowmanators said...

Scott and Jenny,

Have you tried a night light? You can also try spraying water in a squirt bottle and calling it "repellent" for whatever he is scared of.

So far as avoiding backsliding, just be sure you stay in his room to comfort him. Don't let him get up and be out with the family for a while longer because that will of course be great fun :)

Also, watch for those two year molars if he hasn't gotten them yet.

Scott and Jenny said...

Thank you so much for your comment. After about 2 weeks of waking up mid-night, our son is back to sleeping through the night again. We bought 2 night lights for his room. I also played shadow puppets with him, to teach him that shadows are not scary, but can be fun instead. We got him an iPod dock, and started playing a playlist full of lullabies and psalms to help ease the anxiety and lull him to sleep. This worked wonders! I also continue to reward him for sleeping a full night in his bed by himself. If he does so, he gets a sticker or something similar in the morning when he wakes up. Thank you again for all of your help! This blog is a HUGE resource for me, and I am so grateful!

Plowmanators said...

So good to hear Jenny! Thanks for sharing your success!

Marcie Whalen said...

Hi Val! I really appreciate your blog so thank you :) I have a (in 3 weeks) 2 year old and a 7 month old. My 2 year old has always been a great sleeper until about a week ago. She suddenly started waking up in the middle of the night crying. She would be comforted by me or my husband coming into her room but if we tried to leave before she was fully asleep she just started crying hysterically again. We don't want the baby to wake so we have been staying with her up to an hour and I took her into bed with me last night because my husband was away and I was so tired. Obviously this can't continue and I don't want poor habits to develop as they may have already. Could it be nightmares? She also refuses to go down for a nap now without someone staying with her until she falls asleep and shes been waking early from naps too. It's very odd behavior as she went to sleep on her own since she was a newborn and took big naps and sleeps 12 hours. I've asked if she is scared but she said no. Any suggestions you have would be great! Thank you

Jen Bowers said...

Not sure if you will still read this, but I'm desperate for help. My 2 1/2 year old has been a 11 hour sleeper for most of his life thanks to Babywise. He has all of a sudden become scared of the dark. I got him a night light that stays on for an hour and projects ocean waves on the ceiling and he is staying awake until it turns off, then crying because it's dark. He is also waking anywhere between 3 hours (rare) and 1 hour (common) before his normal wake time. I am certain the early wake times have to do with how long he is laying awake in bed before he falls asleep. Would you agree? I have tried adding another night light that is small, plugs in and stays on all night, but he gets very afraid with only that one on. This is not leading to lots more discipline issues during the day as he is not getting enough sleep. Any ideas? His communication is a little delayed, so I try to talk to him about sleep time and being safe and the night light, but I'm not sure it's sinking in quite yet. Thanks in advance for your thoughts! Love your blog!

Valerie Plowman said...

Jen that is tricky with him being unable to communicate things very clearly to you yet.

One thing I always wonder about is if the child is really afraid or if the child is just trying to get out of bedtime. If it is get out of bedtime, it is time to just go to CIO if necessary. But you don't want to do that if there is legitimate fear.

If he is afraid of the dark, a nightlight should help that. Since it isn't, I would wonder if that is really what is upsetting him.

And I would agree that he is waking early since he is up too late.


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