As a counsellor at Parent Line NSW I often speak to parents who are struggling with understanding their child’s reactions to what seem like everyday issues. In the early years, children are busy learning about their world. They tend to have little information and few experiences to draw upon to form an understanding of something new.
I am constantly astounded at the creative strategies that parents develop to assist their children to adjust to new experiences. I wanted to share a story from my life as a parent, as an example of how creativity and playful strategies can help a toddler overcome their fears.
My toddler was very excited that a fire engine was coming to the day-care Christmas Party. There he learned about lots of things to do with fire, including fire alarms. He was told that fire alarms were useful because they would definitely wake you up if there was a fire at home.
That night my son wouldn’t go to bed, as he didn’t want to walk under the smoke alarm to get into his room, He was worried that it might go off. It took some gentle questioning to understand that he was scared that it would make a really loud noise. Like many toddlers, he was scared of some loud noises. So I acknowledged that loud noises can be scary and annoying to our ears. But while looking at the smoke alarm from a distance I talked about that if that loud noise did go off, how helpful the smoke alarm would be to us, as he’d be saying “smoke about, get out in case there is a fire.”
Sometimes children’s fearful fantasies or imaginings can be frustrating, if adults don’t understand their fears or the fears seem illogical and persistent. However it is also an opportunity to introduce more positive strategies to help them overcome fears. Overcoming fears builds resilience in children: they learn that they can develop skills confidence to begin to manage new experiences.
I decided to be playful with this fear and help my son develop a positive fantasy relationship with ‘Mister Smoke Alarm’. We thanked him for being there to let us know if there was smoke about. My son then wanted to go and introduce his stuffed animals to ‘Mister Smoke Alarm’ so they could thank him as well. I let him expand this useful fantasy of ‘friendly Mister Smoke Alarm’ by agreeing that he was probably hungry, and should join in on the pretend picnic dinner that he was having with his animal friends. So there we all were, having a fun imaginary picnic under the smoke alarm and then he was happy to go to bed.
Over time, after many ‘hellos’ to ‘Mister Smoke Alarm’, the fear faded. But fears are such a normal part of a toddler’s life: it wasn’t long before a new one developed. On the first night that daylight savings stopped, my son noticed how dark it was outside, and quickly wanted us to close the curtains, and to go to bed, without having dinner. This fear is a more common one for toddlers, so – as a I often talk to parents about helping their child manage this one – it wasn’t as hard for me to come up with a creative way of managing it.
I talked with him about how it can be scary when it is dark and you don’t know what is out there. I took him outside and turned the outside light on and he said that he could see that everything looked the same as it did during the day, it was just hidden by the dark. I then encouraged, (as he ate his dinner), some positive fantasy to imagine that at night his favourite animals, wombats and owls, were out there just near our garden, looking for food.
Luckily the next weekend there was a clear sky with a full moon, so I suggested that at sunset we take our torches and go for a walk in the bush opposite our house, to see if the wombats were out of their wombat holes. He was so excited when he saw fresh wombat poo, and we fantasised that they must have waddled off to their favourite restaurant, but we couldn’t find where the ‘wombat restaurant’ was.
We did hear an owl on the way home, and were mesmerized by the huge full moon, not once noticing we were walking in the dark. At home I congratulated him on going on such a long walk in the dark, just like Piglet does in his story ‘Bother, someone is afraid of the dark’.
These days he still wants his Pooh Bear night light on when he goes to sleep, but a few times in the morning he’s excitedly told me how he heard the owl in the dark come to his window to hoot ‘hello’.
There have been other fears: fear of falling in the toilet when he’s sitting on it, fear of the bath plug hole, and I’m sure there will be more to come. Some fears have been easier to deal with than others. And even though there is not one ‘right’ way to deal with toddler fears, I try to remember the general principles of:
- Acknowledge the fear
- Let them know it’s normal to have fears
- Be reassuring
- Be playful in your approach to managing fears
- Try to empower the child through positive imaginings or fantasies
- Create pleasant associations
- Applaud bravery
- In new situations remind them about how they managed to overcome a fear last time
Being able to acknowledge fearful things but to not let it stop them doing something, is an important lesson for toddlers (and at any age). It is helpful to be gentle and playful in your approach and understand that these lessons will then help them throughout their whole lives when they ‘feel fear’, but are supported to still ‘do it anyway’.