Positive relationships - Childhood fears - I'm scared

Why children feel fear, and how they experience it at different ages, is explored by Maria Robinson.

You're sleeping comfortably when a loud noise wakes you up. You sit up, totally alert, with your heart pounding, straining every sense to try to identify the source of the sound. At first, you will probably 'freeze', then you may hide under the bed or grab something heavy and tiptoe downstairs ...

Fear is a feeling that we are all familiar with. There are some contexts in which most, if not all human beings can feel fear, such as a life-threatening situation or illness, being alone, sudden or loud noises, and heights. But we can also vary in what makes us fearful.

The common feature of any fear is the presence, real or imagined, of danger. Feeling fear is an evolutionary safeguard to alert us to what may be threatening in our environment. The sensation of fear in response to threat is something that is deeply ingrained in most creatures. Laboratory rats, for example, become agitated, play less, eat less and display 'wary attention' if a tiny sample of cat hair is placed in their cage - even if they have never encountered a cat (Panksepp, 1998).

Reflex mechanisms

Originally it was thought that our feelings of fear arose out of a 'learned anticipation' of events that could harm us. Now many researchers, such as Panksepp, have greater understanding of circuits in the brain that appear to co-ordinate our responses to fearful events. We have evolved a whole brain and body system that is activated from birth in response to potential threat.

For example, think about a newborn baby and the very specific response it has to loud noises, change of light, sudden movement, rough handling or any unexpected, sudden occurrence. The baby throws out its arms and legs, throws back its head, cries and then draws its limbs back in - the 'startle' or Moro reflex.

These behaviours are accompanied by changes in the baby's heart rate, a rise in blood pressure and rate of breathing, and the release of stress hormones. These are the same physiological responses we have as adults when we are frightened - our heart rate rises, we breathe faster and so on. This is part of the 'fight, flight or freeze' mechanism when we feel threatened (which response is used will depend on the context - whether we are predator or lunch!)

The brain's amygdala - a key structure involved in the processing of emotions, especially fear - is fully developed at birth. The threat of danger is not only physical, but psychological, and the responses to both are intertwined. Infants are totally helpless, so their relationship with carers and the type of environment they provide will establish the basic framework of responses.

How a parent responds to the wary, anxious or fearful baby or child will contribute strongly to how the attachment relationship is developed. As we get older, our own sense of emotional safety and security, our confidence in our ability or whether we feel helpless will depend on how our fears have been managed in our earliest lives.

Ages and stages

As we develop further with all our brain, bodily and emotional systems slowly maturing, there appear to emerge particular sorts of fears at different ages. Again, how adults deal with these fears will influence how a child will develop strategies for dealing with threat.

In newborn infants the fear or startle response is mainly 'reflexive'. However, the combined effects of their growing attachment relationships, together with their maturing brain, means that by around seven months, most children show not only distress at separation but also wariness/anxiety when unfamiliar people approach. Babies of this age may also begin to show wariness or fear when encountering masks and jack-in-the-boxes. This is probably because babies are refining their recognition of different human faces at this time, contributing to their greater awareness of strangers and also of features which may not fit into their understanding of faces.

Separation anxiety continues in some form right through the life span, but peaks in children around 18-24 months. Children are naturally very distressed at separations during this phase - which means that adult carers should never 'sneak out' when leaving children. Such fears in pre-school children can be increased by moving house, staying with relatives overnight and starting a new nursery or school.

Toddlers, around 24 months, often have fears of the toilet or baths. They may be afraid that they will vanish down the toilet or down the plughole. No matter how 'silly' this might seem to us, such fears are very real. These children know something about size and shape, but not enough to realise they can't get 'sucked away'. If you think about the type of play at this time (clambering, going through tunnels, squeezing into small spaces), you can see how the child is trying to establish their own shape and size in relation to other things in their environment. Toilet training can also bring fears of adults' reaction to 'accidents'. Other fears around this time are of loud noises, fast-approaching objects, and, often, doctors!

From the age of 24 months, children's imaginations are growing in both strength and complexity. Between 36 and 48 months they can show fear of a range of experiences. They frequently don't like the dark, scary noises or being left alone. Appliances like vacuum cleaners and hairdriers can suddenly seem really frightening. Many children imagine monsters (remember how you saw faces in the patterns of your bedroom curtains?). Some will be afraid of dogs.

Fear of the dark is one of the fears that takes the longest to disappear and may never entirely go away. Even everyday situations can frighten some children - going to bed can become scary because of the fears that something might be under the bed. Adults need to remember that children in this age range still have difficulty separating out fantasy from reality. For example, some children who were told a story about a monster in a box (who turned out to be a small, friendly creature) had a box as a 'prop'. Afterwards, despite knowing the box was empty and that it was 'only a story', they still displayed some wariness of it.

It is very important to strike a balance between encouraging caution and avoiding fear. Your own reactions and responses will be crucial, as children will see what scares you and will then believe that there is genuinely a threat.

School-aged children generally have fears that are more based in 'reality' - or rather, fears that adults can relate to more clearly, such as towards storms, fire or injury. But children may worry about these things greatly. As they get older, they realise that these things don't happen often, so they can 'readjust' their fear level.

They do worry about their parents, in terms of both their relationship and their health, and are certainly more aware of the reality of danger via media such as television and internet.

How to help

Whatever age a child is and whatever their fear, a child should never be made to feel silly or have their fears dismissed. Saying 'don't be silly' doesn't make them feel any better. Soothing responses and practical measures, such as putting on a night light, looking under the bed together, telling stories where characters have faced their fear of the dark or monsters, are all positive approaches. Young children should not be exposed to too much adult-orientated TV, such as news programmes.

If a child is afraid of the bath or the toilet, gradual and gentle exposure to the situations, step by step, can help. Forcing a child to take a bath or use the toilet will simply make it worse.

On the other hand, adults must guard against making too much of a child's fears and becoming over-protective. When they encounter such a response they may begin to feel that fears are insurmountable. Children look to us for safety and protection, and they need us to help them find strategies to cope with whatever they fear.


- Panksepp, J (1998) Affective Neuroscience. Oxford: Oxford University Press

- Sunderland, M, (2006) The Science of Parenting. London: Dorling Kindersley

- Nadel, J, Muir, D, (eds) (2005) Emotional Development. New York: Oxford University Press

- Family Development Factsheet: www.ceinfo.unh.edu

- Fear in young children: www.healthychild.net/articles/sh54fear.html.

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