Fears of children in the course of their development

A lot of parents are concerned, because their children are suddenly expressing new anxieties or fears. For example, all of a sudden a child does not want to sleep alone in his room anymore, because he fears that a monster might pop out from under his/her bed. In this article, I would like to give a broad overview over “normal” fears in different developmental stages, what the function of anxiety is, how to differentiate between regular fears which come along with certain ages and the beginning of an anxiety disorder and helpful parenting strategies for coping with anxious children.

First of all, how is anxiety defined?

Anxiety or fear is a normal reaction to acute or imagined danger, which is expressed in behavior and as an inner feeling and is accompanied by physiological changes. Depending on age, anxious children might cry, be clingy, withdraw from the situation or avoid these. Physiological reactions in children might include tummy ache, sweating or a higher heart beat.

Anxiety is one of the basic emotions which serves several functions. Firstly, it can support self-protection by alerting children to potential threats, promoting caution. Fear of heights, loud noises, or strangers, for example, serves as a natural instinct for survival. Further, anxiety may help children recognize and manage emotions. Fears of separation or social rejection, for instance, promote the development of emotional coping skills and the seeking of social support.

Let’s have a look at common fears in different developmental stages.

Infant and Toddler Age (0 – 2 years old): 

It is very normal and common for babies and toddlers to be scared of unknown people or of the separation from a caregiver. Reactions to these normal fears include clinging behaviour and crying. 

Early Childhood (2 – 6 years old): 

During this phase, children often exhibit fears related to being left alone/lost, animals, darkness, imaginary creatures or natural disaster. These fears typically emerge as a result of their expanding imagination and cognitive development. They may express fear through tantrums, avoidance or clinging behaviour.

Middle Childhood (7 – 12 years): 

As children grow older, their fears may shift to real-life threats such as injuries, fire outbursts or social rejection. They may also worry about academic performance, making friends, or fitting in. These fears are mostly transient and fade as children gain more confidence and coping skills.

Adolescence (13 – 18 years): 

Adolescents face new challenges, including academic pressures, social complexities, and self-identity concerns. Anxiety during this stage may revolve around social anxiety, performance anxiety, body image issues, or future uncertainties. 

When should parents worry that fears of their children are more than just part of a normal developmental trajectory?

When fears are persisting for a long period of time, the content of the fear is not age appropriate and the fear is affecting the life of the child in a substantial way (e.g. not being able to go to school any more, not meeting friends anymore, sleeping in bed of parents again or other sleep disturbances over a longer period of time), parents might need to get a consultation about a potential anxiety disorder of their child.

For example, if your 12-year-old child is afraid of exams so much that he cannot sleep anymore and tries to stay absent from school over a longer period of time, it is probably good to present your child to a psychologist. Also, when your child is continuously worrying a lot (about health, academics, separation of parents), the worry seems uncontrollable and therefore the child seeks reassurance from the parents or other caregivers multiple times a day, a consultation might be helpful.

Yet in transition phases (e.g. start of preschool or change of schools), short term anxieties are normal.

If you are experiencing a phase of anxiety in your child, there are some aspects you as a parent might be able to consider, as a supportive environment at home and in school is crucial for a child’s emotional well-being. It is important that the child has the feeling that it can talk about its anxieties and that the parents validate the children’s feelings. Further, parents can model healthy coping strategies by managing their own stress and fears effectively. Children learn from observing their parents, so demonstrating adaptive coping mechanisms is beneficial.

To meet with a professional psychologist or counsellor, call The Other Clinic at 8809 0659 or email us hello@theotherclinic.sg.

Reference:

  1. Anxiety Disorders in Childhood and Adolescence