Your little one has been happy to go into dark rooms to fetch things or to fall asleep with the lights off…until he isn’t anymore. Suddenly, the dark leads to refusal, shouting, perhaps even screaming or crying. How is it possible that your little one has become so scared of the dark? What imaginings is she conjuring in her creative young mind?
Fear is a normal sympathetic nervous response to stimuli for both children and adults. We commonly refer to this as a fight-or-flight response; we can become reactive or passive and retreating. It is sometimes useful to view tantrums through this lens as well. Is this a fight response to stress? What is the stressor? How can we lessen or manage this stressor?
Very young infants experience the newborn startle reflex for about the first two months of life. This reflex is usually triggered by sudden noises or movements, such as suddenly being placed on their backs on a surface such as a bed or changing table. Fears, which require more awareness of surroundings, appear around the age of six months and can include separation anxiety. Biologically, it makes sense for a child to want to stay close to those that they are familiar with and from whom they receive warmth, attentiveness, engagement and nutrition. Many studies show that leaving a baby on their own leads to a rise in cortisol, a stress hormone. This, in turn, can lead to a fight response of crying or screaming; or a retreating response of becoming disengaged and quiet.
Common sources of fear in babies:
Working with your infant to reduce fear: Allow your baby to be close to you. Your calm and reassuring presence will be soothing to your little one. Expecting an infant to be able to soothe herself at such a young age, may increase her anxiety and may affect her ability to trust others.
Playing games like Peekaboo help to develop a myriad of skills, however it is important to play such games in a gentle manner and avoid any games with the aim of scaring your little one.
Help your baby to transition slowly from one position to another. So slowly easing him on to the bed or into the bath will give him time to process what is happening. Holding your baby close to your chest while lowering him on to a surface is also effective - so bend towards the surface with your baby “stuck” to you. Describe what you are doing at the same time. The same can be done when dressing or changing your little one’s nappy - some babies really don’t enjoy the quick movements. Slow down what you are doing and chat about it at the same time.
Toddlers are very sensitive to sensory input and if sensory stimuli overwhelm their nervous system the child’s body will produce a cascade of hormones including cortisol (stress hormone). Imagined fears will also start playing a role at this age, especially since toddlers have difficulty discerning between real and pretend situations/characters.
Common sources of fear in toddlers:
Dealing with fear is similar to dealing with most of our children’s “big” emotions. For many children, being able to acknowledge and explore feelings in a safe space is more helpful than trying to “fix” the problem for them. Remain calm and label the emotion, confirm that it’s ok to feel this way and brainstorm together about what could help to make the scary feeling a little smaller/less powerful. For a young toddler who is less verbal, you can offer suggestions that they can say yes or no to, e.g. “You are feeling very scared. Would a hug help? Should we try a hug?” For some children, drawing the source of the fear can help - you can ask what you can change about the picture to make it less scary. “It was a loud bang, let’s try to draw it. What shape should we make it? What colour? Can we draw some happy music that will make the bang quieter? Or draw a box over the loud bang?”
Things to avoid doing:
When your child’s fear seems to be extreme and appears frequently and is affecting his daily activities such as eating, sleeping and playing, it may be helpful to consult a professional who can offer additional support.
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