Kindergartners and fear
It's normal for your kindergartner to be fearful. After all, anxiety is a natural condition that helps us cope with new experiences and protects us from danger. Around age 5, your child's worries may shift from the world of fantasy (monsters and aliens) to those rooted in reality (animals, insects, and forces of nature like fires, thunderstorms, and earthquakes). Fear of the dark and of being left alone at night, though, may continue. News stories about death, crime, violence, war, or natural disasters may also cause anxiety. A 5-year-old may also be anxious about the health of her loved ones if there's been a recent illness, accident, or death in the family. And a shy or withdrawn kindergartner may be afraid of strangers or social situations such as birthday parties. Most of your kindergartner's fears will pass as she becomes more secure in her world.
What you can do to ease your kindergartner's fears
Acknowledge her fears. They may seem silly and irrational, but they're very real and serious to her. Try not to smile when she tells you she's scared of, say, the neighbor's poodle or a thunderstorm. Let her know you understand how it feels to be afraid of something. If you're reassuring and comforting, she'll learn it's okay to have fears and that it's best to deal with them. "Try to depersonalize the fear by getting your child to talk about what's making her scared," says William Coleman, a behavioral pediatrician at the
Trying to convince your 5-year-old that there isn't any reason to be afraid will only backfire. You'll probably only make her more upset if you say, "It's okay, the dog won't hurt you. There's nothing to be afraid of." Instead, try saying, "I understand that the dog frightens you. Let's walk past him together."
Explain, expose, and explore. At this age, there are a host of tools you can use to distract your child from her fear, as well as ways your 5-year-old can work through it on her own. She might, for instance, find comfort in drawing or painting what it was like to see a house on fire. Pretend play can still help a child this age. A game in which your kindergartner pretends to be the scary character — a snarling dog, a slithering snake, or a buzzing bee — can help her feel more powerful the next time she encounters an animal that makes her anxious.
You can also help your child learn about frightening things from a safe distance by reading a book, watching a video, or going on an outing. (Of course, you should avoid exposing your child to anything horrific, gory, or otherwise inappropriate, either on television or in books.) If your child is afraid of insects, try watching a video together about the natural world or take a trip to the natural history museum or zoo. If she's scared of animals, a trip to a petting zoo, where docile creatures can be stroked and fed, may help. If your 5-year-old is scared of the dark, try holding her hand as you take a nighttime stroll identifying the constellations or spend a few minutes in a dark room together looking at glow-in-the-dark stickers.
Teach self-comforting skills. You'll help your child more in the long run if you teach her how to calm herself when she's anxious instead of always rushing to soothe her. If she's upset or agitated, encourage her to take deep breaths or sing a favorite song. By redirecting her attention away from the object of her fear, she'll regain physical composure and then work on getting her feelings in check.
Praise every small step and focus your attention on her accomplishments rather than on the fear itself. "Some kids — like adults — do better with distraction, others with more information," says Kristi Alexander, a pediatric psychologist at the
Don't be judgmental. Never make your child feel that she is immature for being afraid, and above all, avoid belittling her in front of her peers. Instead, empathize with her. Say, "I can see that the lightning and thunder really scared you." Then together, brainstorm a plan that might help her cope with her fear in the future. Talk with your child in a calm, matter-of-fact way about what's troubling her, and let her know that you're confident that she can overcome her fears. Ask her, "What do you think might help you feel less scared?" By encouraging your 5-year-old's involvement, you help strengthen her coping skills. For instance, you might suggest that she put headphones on to listen to her favorite music during a big storm or curl up with you to watch the spectacle in the sky safely from inside.
Don't share your fears. If your kindergartner sees you break out in a sweat because you're afraid of flying, or if you cringe when you walk into the dentist's office, then she's likely to feel scared of these things, too. So try to work through your own anxieties, or at least try to downplay them. It's okay, however, to confess that you didn't like going to the dentist, either, as a kid, but you went to keep your teeth healthy. It helps a child to know she's not alone, and that you, too, learned to overcome something scary.
What to watch out for
If your kindergartner's fears routinely interfere with her normal daily activities — if she won't go to bed because she's afraid of the dark or she insists on staying home out of fear of seeing a dog — then talk to her pediatrician, especially if her fears have intensified over time. She may have a genuine phobia (a phobia is an intense and persistent irrational fear).