Relationship Connection: My toddler is terrified of everything scary

Question

I’m wondering if you have any suggestions for me. I have a daughter, 27 months old, who, somehow has become traumatized by the Halloween festivities. We do not decorate with Halloween decor, but she learned the word “scary” and now EVERYTHING is scary. She is almost debilitated by it at times.

Things she fears include anything from a hair bow in her room, to a jacket, to an old fabric pumpkin face that we did as a craft (that she previously enjoyed). I try to gently talk her through it and remove the offending object, if possible. But I wonder if it’s just a phase, or if she might benefit from some kind of counseling, even though she is very young. Her language skills are pretty advanced, in my opinion.

What do you recommend for someone so young? She’s starting to have trouble going to bed now even though she has a good lamp in her room.

Answer

Fears in children that age are very common. In fact, most children will have some kind of specific fear or phobia that won’t immediately disappear. However, you don’t need to be scared of your child’s fear.

Sometimes a parent’s anxiety around their child’s own anxiety can actually make things worse. Amy Cluff, therapist and child therapy expert, said that “sometimes parents become so preoccupied with removing everything that scares or upsets the child that it unintentionally sends a signal to the child that those things are actually dangerous when, in reality, they are not.”

Check your own reactivity around her fear and make sure you’re managing your own distress so she doesn’t pick up on the message that something must really be wrong. We want our children to be happy, free, and enjoy a safe childhood. When they show signs of fear and anxiety, it’s natural for us to scramble to make everything comfortable for them.

Instead, I recommend you leave everything like it is and let her know that things aren’t dangerous. You can show her this by comforting her, holding her, and showing her that these things aren’t harmful. Over time, she’ll eventually recognize that she’s safe and move forward. If you organize her entire world around removing every potential threat, she’ll learn that she’s fragile and can’t handle being uncomfortable.

Children need to face their fears with the loving support of their parents. Removing those fears every time a child flinches in distress only teaches them that they can’t handle the unpredictability of the world. Obviously, some dangers that are harmful to their physical and emotional safety need to be removed. For example, I wouldn’t encourage you to have her watch a horror movie so she can learn to handle scary things.

Her fears make sense to her, but you can gently reassure her that she’s safe and those things won’t hurt her. You can support her by staying close to her when she’s afraid and trust that she will eventually see that these things aren’t a real threat. As you calmly connect to her and allow her to experience the discomfort in the presence of these triggers, she’ll develop more resilience and eventually move forward a stronger kid.

Stay connected!

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Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are solely his and not those of St. George News.

Have a relationship question for Geoff to answer? Submit to:

Email: geoff@lovingmarriage.com

Twitter: @geoffsteurer

Facebook: facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2014, all rights reserved.

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7 Comments

  • Hatalli November 12, 2014 at 10:16 am

    I think the parents need immediate counseling from somebody who knows what the heck they are doing. Steurer is right, about some things. Little kids have fears that are hard for parents to understand.
    But parents own psychic can lead to all kinds of childhood trauma. In this case, it seems that is what is going on, and from the way to brief information given, it will likely just get worse as time goes on.
    You mention counselling for the child, but you don’t mention it for your child’s parents, (you and your spouse.) YOU ALL NEED IT, but from someone who knows what he or she is talking about!

  • PROTECT THE SHEEP November 12, 2014 at 11:09 am

    From what I’ve read about child psychology, these sound like tell tale signs of sexual abuse…

  • Koolaid November 12, 2014 at 11:19 am

    You haven’t started the church indoctrination yet? I’m surprised!

  • Zonkerb November 12, 2014 at 10:50 pm

    KOOLAID yeah I agree with you I’m sure that the parents will be interviewed by the Bishop

    • koolaid November 14, 2014 at 11:13 pm

      Should be thinking about priesthood about now, don’tcha think?

  • JOSH DALTON (INCOGNEGRO) November 13, 2014 at 8:29 am

    Redbox…Redbox is the answer to all of your problems. Let the kid sit down and watch some of the “scary” movies from the 80s. Not only will this cure the fear, but the child might even find most scary things funny and entertaining. The only problem this might lead to is the interest in movies about possessions and other forms of violence. In turn, if not educated on the dangers, the kid might turn into a little horror story himself. GO FALCONS!

    • Roy J November 13, 2014 at 7:22 pm

      ohmygosh, Redbox has 80s horror flicks?!?! debitdebitdebitdebit…hey this is the karate kid starring ralf muchacho…XD

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