YOU might have been a bit thrown in recent weeks by your toddler’s extreme fear of a pantomime character or Santa.
It’s quite common for small children to fear big unusual bodies that look different to anything they normally know, says parent coach Val Mullally.
Fears can become particularly strong at toddler age when self-will and language are developing. “The brain is going through fairly major reconstruction. And children at this age are seeing more of the world, but not always making sense of it,” says Mullally, who points to other fears typical of this age — loud noises (vacuum cleaner, sirens, bathroom driers) and fears that come from ‘imagined places’.
“A child suddenly decides they don’t want to have a bath. They see water going down the plughole and, without a strong sense of their own body size, they’re afraid they’ll be sucked down too.”
Fears can have a very transferable quality: child hears animal roaring when visiting zoo — later his dad’s raised voice can upset him.
Parents should avoid getting uptight because this increases the child’s tension. So does telling them not to be silly. “Trying to squash their fear adds to their stress and anxiety or puts a lid on it and pushes it under the surface. It could come out later in a more complicated way,” says Mullally.
Instead, help child integrate the experience into their life. Trying to reason with them when they’re terrified doesn’t work; flooded with emotion, the reasoning part of their brain isn’t engaged. Stay calm, says Mullally, so your body gives off a calm message through eye contact, holding them and reassuring them. “Using their name repeatedly is also very helpful.”
Afterwards use words to help them understand it: ‘you felt scared when the drier made a big noise’. Encourage them to act out the experience in play with stuffed animals or dolls. Let them draw it with big fat wax crayons.
“Anxiety equals powerlessness multiplied by uncertainty. When you do something to reduce the sense of powerlessness and increase the sense of certainty, you help to diminish the anxiety,” says Mullally.
So if you need to hoover and you know your child’s scared of the noise, say ‘I need to hoover upstairs — do you want to come with me or stay down here with Daddy?’
* Val Mullally is running a six-week evening Parenting course in Douglas, Cork, starting Thursday, Jan 30. See www.koemba.com for details.