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How to Help Your Toddler Overcome Their Fears

By Lorraine Thomas Child scared of dentist If your child is scared of the dentist,you can prepare them by role playing or reading a book about a child's visit to the dentist. I was in the park at the weekend, walking Bonnie, my miniature schnauzer. As we got close to a mum and her little son, I could see that she was getting very upset.  She wanted to leave the park, but her toddler was clearly refusing to do so and in the process of going into meltdown. In desperation, the mum pointed at Bonnie and said to her son, “If you don’t leave with me right now – that dog is going to bite you!” It took me a moment to realise that she was talking about us and I am sure that I saw look of amazement cross Bonnie’s cute, fluffy face. Bonnie, by the way, looks like a grey teddy bear, is very gentle and loves children. I wanted to help this mum who was at the end of her tether (we’ve all been there) and also wanted to make sure that her son actually had a positive ‘dog’ experience rather than one that may frighten him of dogs for years to come. I said to the mum and the toddler that Bonnie was actually very friendly and liked children. She was a great distraction and the little boy began to stroke her very gently and as she just lay there loving every minute – he grew much more confident with her and ended up tickling her tummy. He had forgotten what he was crying about and asked mum to tickle his tummy too! We all walked out of the park together – everyone happy. The toddler on his hands and feet so that he could walk on four legs like Bonnie. Since getting Bonnie, I have been really surprised by the number of children – and parents - who are really frightened of dogs. I know from personal experience just how much fun and joy children can have with dogs and other pets. My son, Josh, was really frightened of dogs (we had to walk past a long line of them barking at the nursery fence) – but having Bonnie has totally changed his attitude and he loves hanging out with her now. It’s natural for toddlers to be frightened of things. It’s part of their emotional development. Many 18-month-olds develop a fear of animals, noises and medical professionals; at two years their fears broaden to include the dark, being flushed down the toilet and people dressed strangely (such as clowns). At around two and a half, their imagination begins to run wild and fears include imaginary creatures. Your toddler is a very small person in a very large and often scary world. With their vivid imagination they can conjure up imaginary monsters in the wardrobe and turn your vacuum into an alien from outer space. It’s hard for them to understand what is real and what is imaginary. Most toddlers will grow out of their fears. The best thing you can do is to be gentle and supportive and listen to them. If they’re worried, give them a cuddle. Always acknowledge the worry. You may want to reassure her by saying, ‘There’s nothing to worry about because I won’t let the dog hurt you.’ But it is better to let them know that you understand by saying: ‘I can understand why you are frightened of that dog, he’s got a very loud bark.’ It is important for your toddler to learn that it is okay to be afraid and that it’s a good idea to let you know whenever this happens. Explain what is happening so that your child understands there is a reason for the thing that scares them. If, for example, they are anxious about sirens explain that a fire engine has to make a loud noise because it is in a hurry to help people and it is letting cars know it needs to pass them. If they are afraid of the plug hole, tell them that water goes down there to empty the bath, but only liquids to down. Demonstrate with one of their bath toys. If you know your toddler worries about being separated from you for a while – make sure you prepare them. If you are leaving them with a friend, for example, let them know it is going to happen and reassure them you will return. Don’t be tempted to sneak out without saying goodbye because then they’ll never know when you are going to disappear in the future. It may be tough, but do everything you can to make sure you don’t pass on your own fears and anxieties. If they know you are worried about something, the chances are that they will be too. We can understand how our toddlers feel, because we all worry about things, whether it’s our health, our children, finances, parking the car – or spiders. It’s good, however, to let them know that you were frightened of something as a child, perhaps visiting the dentist – and that you overcame it and are now happy to go because the dentist keeps your teeth healthy.  

Common Fears and How to Help

Medical appointments: Prepare your toddler for visits to the doctor by playing with a toy medicine kit or reading a book about a child’s visit to the nurse. Dogs: Be practical and positive. Find a friend who has a child-friendly dog and help your toddler get used to it. Or if you are in the street, say to your toddler, ‘You can hold my hand and we will both walk past the dog together’ or ‘ We can stand here and wait for the dog to go past us’. Let your toddler choose. The Dark: Try using a nightlight. Toddlers also respond well to having a teddy or blanket they can cuddle if they are worried. Give them a choice of a couple of things and let them decide what they want to use to help comfort them. Make sure they spend time in their bedroom having fun at different times of the day – so it is not only at night when they are there. It will make everything seem more familiar and less scary. Monsters, Witches and Ghosts: Avoid reading stories with monsters in them too close to bedtime and don’t watch DVDs that may fire your toddler’s imagination. Reassure her by searching her room to make sure it is a monster-free zone.  
Lorraine Thomas Lorraine Thomas is on the Toddle About Panel of Experts. She is the Chief Executive of The Parent Coaching Academy and author of ‘Brilliantly Behaved Toddler’. She runs workshops for working parents with clients including Marks & Spencer, Morgan Stanley, Novartis and Barclays. She is used as a parenting expert by Tesco.