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The big three preschooler fears are MONSTERS, THUNDER and ANIMALS.
Parents understand that monsters are scary and appreciate the fact that a loud clap of thunder can scare even a grown-up. Fear of animals is more puzzling. For example, a fear of dogs may come on suddenly and for no apparent reason. The child who previously said “Bow-Wow!” and pointed to pictures or actual dogs with glee, suddenly reacts with terror when he or she spots a dog.
There is a reason. The child is now old enough to know that some animals can pose a threat but too young to distinguish which animals are actually a threat.
What can parents do to help preschoolers overcome and deal with their fears?
* Acknowledge the child’s feelings and be sure to give them a name. I remember walking with my younger sister who would tighten her hand on mine when she spotted a dog far down the street long before she knew the words “I am afraid”. All the parent has to say is something like, “I understand you’re afraid of the thunder. It’s a real loud noise, isn’t it?”
* Realistically explain what has to be explained. Even a young child can be told that loud noises don’t hurt us and that the thunder is caused by lightning. My father used to tell us that lightning was electrical energy that built up in storm clouds and that thunder was the noise caused by the air rushing into the space the lightning created. He further taught us to count “One-one thousand” between the flash of lightning and the clap of thunder to figure out how many seconds elapsed so we could estimate how far away the lightning was. He told us these things when we were much too young to understand them, but he offered us a rational scheme to deal with these common natural phenomena. And he never tried to talk us out of our fears. As a matter of fact he would deliberately jump as we did in response to a large peal of thunder and we would all say. “That was a BIG one!”
* Stay calm yourself. It’s permissible, even desirable, to say, “When I was little, I was afraid of thunder too!” Children are remarkably reassured by the dyad of parental calmness and parental recounting of their own childhood feelings.
* Encourage the child to talk about the fears. Ask the child why he or she is frightened. “What do you think will happen?” “What can we do about it?”
* Give the child opportunities to master the fear without coercing the child into a confrontation the child is not ready for. In the case of the child’s fears of dogs, you could take the child to the home of a friend who has a mature, calm dog. (Avoid puppies; yes, they are small but they are likely to jump and get in your child’s face.) Don’t even suggest the child approach the dog, just let the child become comfortable with a dog nearby. If the child is not comfortable, try again another day. Do not approach strange dogs you see in the street to show the child you are not afraid because 1) you don’t know how the dog will react and 2) you don’t want your child to get the idea that it’s OK to approach strange animals.
* Give the child further opportunities to master fears by using books. Show the child picture books of dogs and other animals so that the child can learn to make discriminations between all the animals that have teeth and come to realize that many will not bite. You can also play games with stuffed animals.
* Reassure fearful tots. “When you are bigger, you won’t feel frightened of dogs.”
* Do not be ashamed, embarrassed, or worried about this common, developmentally-related behavior in your child. Accept the fact that all young children will exhibit fears, understand that your child will be able to deal with these fears with time and maturation, and do not fall into the trap of thinking that childhood fears are a sign that your child will grow up weak or a “sissy”.
Actually when preschoolers express fear they are giving us a clear message that they are using their developing brain very well. They have learned to recognize the concept of danger! As they mature and as we empower them with knowledge, they will be able to sort out realistic dangers from imagined ones. This process takes time.
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