Kids have worries – from monsters to natural disasters. They can appear at random or may be triggered by everyday events. Their increasing awareness of the world, who is in it, and being able to anticipate bad things happening, can all increase their alarm.
Many of children’s fears can be existential, meaning they are indicative of a child’s growth and development as a separate being. Separation is the most impactful of all experiences and stirs up the emotional center of the brain and can create feelings of fear. As a child becomes increasingly independent, they are less dependent upon their caretakers which may foster some worry. As a child ages, this fear is often transformed into different themes but shares this common root issue.
Worries and fears that ebb and flow are part of the human condition, in fact, a lot of the brain’s energy is spent on evaluating incoming information for threats and sending out signals to the body. We don’t always know when we are afraid and have an emotional unconscious that operates outside of our conscious awareness. Joseph LeDoux, one of the world’s leading neuroscientists who studies anxiety, has shown that it is possible to be full of fear yet rendered speechless.
Common Fears and Worries
The following list contains some of the common fears and worries children may express at different ages. Many of these things are related to developmental changes and immaturity. Sometimes children may not able to articulate what their fears are and strategies for helping kids with higher levels of anxiety can be found in Helping the Anxious Teen or Child Find Rest and When the Worry Bugs are in Your Tummy.
0 to 6 months – Babies can show signs of fear at loud noises given they are unexpected and surprising. The loss of physical, visual, and auditory contact with their adults can also lead to alarm because the parts of the brain responsible for object permanence are not fully developed. When they lose contact with someone, they don’t know that this person will return as they lack an understanding that objects are permanent in time and space.
7 to 12 months – A child at this age can show signs of understanding that objects are permanent as well as causality. They realize that their adults can reappear and that they do have some influence on the actions of others, for example, when they cry someone will come to pick them up. At this age, it is common for them to display stranger protest which indicates their brain has developed enough to lock onto one person as a primary caretaker. This can result in playing shy with people they are not in contact with on a regular basis as well as showing preference for being in the company of their primary attachments. They are still often frightened by loud noises as well as objects that suddenly appear or loom over them.
1 year – Separation from parents is a common source of alarm and fear at this age and continues until 6 years of age. A young child is still highly dependent on adults for caretaking, therefore; they can be alarmed when distant from them. They can also be frightened if they get hurt, as well as loud sounds such as toilets flushing.
2 years – Young children at this age often exhibit some fear or animals as well as large objects. Their smaller size as well as lack of understanding about these things likely increases their alarm level. They may also state they are afraid of dark rooms with separation at night becoming increasingly challenging. Young children often feel most comfortable with structure and routine so changes in their environment can be potential source of concern for them.
3 to 4 years – With the increasing development of their brains, a young child’s imagination and capacity to anticipate bad things happening to them or others can increase. Their dreams may become more vivid with monsters appearing as well as other scary things. They can be afraid of animals, masks, the dark, and can seek comfort in the middle of the night when worried. There can be a heightened level of separation from parents because of their increasing independence, as evident in their exclamations of “I do it myself” and “No, I do!”
5 to 6 years – At this age a child may voice fears of being hurt physically as well as of ‘bad people’. Their play may reflect these themes as they start to imagine bad things happening that are not based in reality. They may voice concerns over ghosts and witches or other supernatural beings. Thunder and lightning may also stir them up too. Sleeping or staying on their own can still be provocative as they are just coming to the end of their development as a separate self.
7 to 8 years – Common fears include being left alone and can lead to wanting company, even if they are playing by themself. They may talk about death and worry about things that could harm them, for example, car accidents to plane crashes. They may still struggle with fears of the dark, as an extension of their growth as a separate being.
9 to 12 years – The ‘tween’ they may express worries related to school performance including a fear of tests and exams. They may have concerns with their physical appearance as well as being injured, and death. As they become more of a separate and social being, they can consider and compare who they are against others which can create some alarm. They may state their discomfort that they are growing up and don’t want to while other kids seem eager to leave childhood behind. It is important to note that the more peer oriented a child is, the more anxiety they may experience at this age as they turn to their peers for understanding who they are, When Peers Matter More than Parents.
Adolescence – For the teenager, personal relationships can be a source of confusion, worry, and fears. As they venture forth as a social being they still need to be anchored to caretakers at home to help them make sense of school issues including their friendships. They may voice fears over political issues given their increasing awareness of the world and movement towards adulthood. Some teens show signs of increasing superstition in an attempt to reduce some of the fears they have at this age too. Anticipating the future and what it holds for them can become a source of worry, along with natural disasters, and other themes related to growing up.
Strategies for Dealing with Worries
For the young child their fear is often alleviated through connection with caring adults who provide safety and reassurance. As a child ages, their increasing maturity will mean they will need to find both courage and tears to face their fears. This growth can be cultivated with the help of adults they trust and can count on.
- Connection – When kids are worried, the best sources of support will come from their closest attachments. Listening to a child’s worries, acknowledging how they are feeling and coming alongside them can help to lessen their fears. Coming alongside means to listen with full attention and to reflect what you have heard instead of problem solving or negating what they have said. If a child’s level of fears and worries are more persistent and chronic, then taking steps to tackle anxiety may be appropriate.
- Play with fear – One of the ways a child’s alarm system develops is by interacting with the world around them. While they may be startled, or show signs of fear, being able to play at this experience can help to diffuse its intensity. As a child plays their brain can integrate the signals as fear is less likely to hijack their emotional systems. Traditional games that can help include hide and seek, peek a boo, board games, to stories that include risk and fear.
- Courage and Bravery – Children under the age of 5 to 7 are unable to exhibit courage because of the lack of integration in their prefrontal cortex. They are only able to feel one intense emotion at a time, so their fear can overwhelm them and when pushed, they can become frustrated, resistant, or attack. When a child is 6 or younger, it may be better to use a relationship with someone they trust to walk them into things that might be new or scary. It is important not to let their fears take the lead in terms of deciding what they should or should not do. For kids who are older, helping them to express what bothers them is helpful. When they can find their words for what scares them, they are better able to articulate their desires that will help them be courageous in the face of what alarms them.
- Tears – Fears can also be alleviated by helping a child express their sadness about the things that worry them. For example, they may talk about a friend who doesn’t always play with them to not wanting to grow up. Sometimes the only thing left to do is to cry or feel one’s disappointment in the face of one’s fears. This will result in a release of the fear as well as some resiliency in the face of one’s worries.
The brain is a sophisticated alarm system that is meant to be activated when separation is anticipated or real. As a child ages, the shape and form of their fears and worries can change in reflection of their increasing development. The role of adults in their life is to cultivate deep connections with them, listen and acknowledge that they are afraid, help them be cautious, find their tears, or be moved to courage as the ultimate answer to their alarm.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara is the author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one), is on faculty at the Neufeld Institute, and Director of Kid’s Best Bet, a counselling and family resource center. For more information please see www.macnamara.wpengine.com and www.neufeldinstitute.org.