‘Mommy, there’s a monster under my bed!’ Many children suddenly develop fears about sleeping alone. The good news is that these anxieties are not only normal but a part of healthy emotional and cognitive development.
Your child will outgrow these fears, especially if we parents understand them and give them the best possible support. Here are ways of addressing your child’s concerns without coddling him or blowing things out of proportion.
1. Identify what triggered the fear
Was there a change in routine? For example, if he’s sleeping in his own room after years of having you just a few steps away, his separation anxiety makes him more ‘jumpy’ whenever he hears loud sounds.
Did something happen recently? For example, he may suddenly be terrified of the neighbor’s dog because a playful puppy jumped on him at the playground a few days ago.
Did he read a scary book or watch a scary movie? Toddlers have vivid imaginations but also have trouble telling the difference between the real world and the make-believe world. This is why he may suddenly be scared of wolves under the bed after you read about The Three Little Pigs and The Big Bad Wolf.
2. Don’t make fun of your child’s fears
Although toddler fears may seem silly to adults, they are very real to him. It’s important to acknowledge his feelings. If he is afraid of losing you whenever you leave the room, reassure him by saying, ‘I know it scares you when you can’t see Mommy, but I’m just going to the bathroom and will be right back.’
3. Help him express the fears.
Because toddlers have active imaginations and limited vocabularies, they need help in articulating how they feel. If he is afraid of monsters in the closet, ask him exactly what he’s afraid of. Does the monster have big eyes and big teeth? Once he is able to tell you exactly what is scaring him, you will now know how to reassure him.
4. Reassure him with affection and attention
You’ll be surprised how far cuddling will go in helping your toddler feel better. And don’t just be affectionate when he’s scared—this might unwittingly encourage him to act fearful because he likes being ‘babied.’ Take equal interest in his happy moods or his every day stories. Praise and applaud him when he accomplishes something.
5. Help him face unfamiliar situations.
If you think your toddler will feel overwhelmed going to a birthday party, prepare him by telling him which familiar faces he will expect to see. Let him know that he will also be meeting new people.
6. Conquer fears in baby steps.
Gradual transition will help. If you want your toddler to play in the sandbox by himself, taking it slow can help. First, climb into the sandbox with him while he sits on your lap. As he becomes busy with scooping of the sand, you can slowly lift him off your lap and put him beside you. After a few minutes, you can slowly stand up (while talking to him) and make your way towards a bench.
7. Get creative.
If your child is scared of the monsters in the room, make a sign ‘No monsters allowed!’ and hang it on his door. Or keep monsters away by concocting some ‘monster spray’ (water in a spray bottle) and spraying it in the room at bedtime.
8. Be patient.
Some parents tell their child to ‘stop being a baby’ or ignore complaints ‘to toughten them up.’ But it’s important to give your toddler time to gain his autonomy naturally. Keep in mind that anxiety and fear are normal at this age and these will fade as your child becomes better at controlling his feelings.
9. Be brave!
Remember, your child takes his cues from you. If you scream every time you see a cockroach or spider, chances are he will become afraid of these things too. Teach your toddler confidence by being calm and confident yourself.
10. Put a positive spin
Associate the fear with a pleasant experience. If your child is afraid of monsters, turn this into a fun arts and crafts afternoon. Together with your toddler, make your own monsters using paper plates, yarn, and art paper. Afterwards, create a fun dance about monsters using the artwork you made.