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Childhood Fears: What Children Are Afraid Of and Why (Part One of a Two Part Series)
By Sandra Crosser, Ph.D.

Do you know what preschool children fear? Do you know how they cope with those fears? To learn, listen to the children.

Anthony is four and wishes his dad would come back. Anthony would like to grow up quicker and is afraid of "guys eating me for dinner."

T.C. Iikes to play with his cat, Gizmo. At age five T.C. admits to being afraid of "every single monster—even the toilet monster." What does he do when he is afraid of a monster? "I take a sledgehammer to it and kill it."

Amanda is three and goes to Head Start. She is afraid of "Mommy being dead." But Amanda would "help fix her back alive."

Nick was five in May and loves to eat out. He is afraid of "nighttime scary commercials and stuff on TV." But, advises Nick, "Live with it. You have to learn sometime."

Kevin has a bird that bites and wishes he could go to school every day. He is afraid of bees and wasps, so he stays in the shade.

Jessica is afraid of alligators, snakes, lizards, dinosaurs, her brothers, her dog, tigers, and Dad. Her coping strategy? "Tell Mom."

Seth, five years old, has a brother and wishes he could have things his own way. He is afraid of "nothing except tornadoes" and says, "I do what you have to do when tornadoes come."

"I have a sword," says Taylor, "I'm not afraid of nothin'."

Parents tend to underestimate their own children's fears (Jones & Gorgers, 1988). Many teachers are also unaware of the nature and number of fears of the young children in their care (Smith, 1985). It is important for early childhood professionals to learn about childhood fears so that they can help children cope with them.


It Is Normal for Children to Have Fears

Children's fears are very real, just like yours and mine. While we tend to have different fears as we mature (Ferrari, 1986), fears can interfere with our quality of life. It is only normal to be afraid sometimes, but it is not normal to be afraid most of the time. When a fear becomes so intense that it consumes time and energy ordinarily available for daily living, then it is not a developmentally normal fear and is termed a phobia. Phobic behaviors usually require psychological intervention; the developmentally normal fears of childhood linger over shorter periods of time and are typically outgrown or replaced by different fears (Murphy, 1985). However, some fears remain stable over longer periods.

Researchers began looking at preschoolers' fears as early as the 1930s (Jersild & Holmes, 1933). Because of the ethical implications of purposefully frightening children, few experimental studies have been conducted in the area of preschool children's fears. Most investigators have surveyed either the parents of preschoolers or the children themselves using instruments, such as the Children's Fear Survey Schedule (Ryall & Dietiker, 1979), which are simply checklists of fears. Problems arise from this shopping list approach because the number of fears checked tends to correlate with the length of the list of possibilities. That is, the longer the list, the more fears selected. When preschoolers are asked by a familiar adult to talk about what they fear, they name, on average, two fears (Jones & Crosser, 1993). The same study found that there appears to be no significant difference in the number of self-reported fears between boys and girls or between socioeconomic levels.

Young children most often report being afraid of supernatural creatures and animals. Taken together and in context, those responses center on bedtime fears. While bedtime fears are not usually apparent in child care centers, the effects of those fear-filled bedtimes can be seen in the reduced daytime energy levels of children who often lie awake at night because they are afraid.

How Children Think Affects What They Fear

The nature of preschoolers' fears appears to be directly related to their cognitive development as described by Piaget (1960). Children do not usually report being afraid of the realistic things we teach them to fear, such as playing in traffic, fire, or strangers. Instead, children fear unrealistic monsters and wild animals that pose no real threat. Because it is cognitively difficult for young children to separate the real from the imaginary, they naturally include the impossible as well as the possible in their mental category of scary things (Wooley & Wellman, 1993).

The young child's typically hazy and often inaccurate conceptualization of cause-and-effect relationships may contribute to a sense of the world as a rather scary place. A sense of security develops when we come to understand that certain events are predictable because the world is orderly. We can anticipate that thunder will follow lightning because there is a predictable relationship between the two events. Around age four, children begin thinking in what cognitive psychologists call intuitive thought. When thinking intuitively, children are certain they know the answers to almost all of the world's questions, but they don't know how they arrived at the answers. They just know. Intuitive thought is not logical, but it is normal and allows the child to explain and make sense of the world. The child may use intuitive thought to create his own explanations and those explanations may invoke fear. For example, shadows may be explained as monsters who live in certain places and follow specific rules of behavior. In the same manner, the child may "know" that tigers and lions are native to her home town and so must be feared.

Young children are also given to animistic thinking, in which they ascribe motive and personality to phenomena such as the moon or wind. Because preschoolers tend to think the world centers around themselves, inanimate objects may appear to be a personal threat. For instance, children may feel that the wind is "trying to get" them.

The thoughts of young children tend to focus on current states that appear to the child to be irreversible. This further contributes to fearfulness. Because the done does not seem able to be undone, some negative situations may seem to the child to be permanent. The young child's reliance on perceptions may also interfere with the ability to reason through a fear. For example, certain Halloween attire or scary faces may make it seem to the child that his costumed friend has actually turned into a scary being and will remain that way forever. In the same manner, being ill or lost or separated from the parent may also be perceived as a permanent state.

Death, on the other hand, is a permanent state which young children perceive as temporary. Because the concept is abstract, children may hold confused and incorrect ideas about death. Therefore, a child can be afraid that Mommy will die and at the same time believe, like Amanda, that she can "help fix her back alive."

Children also learn to fear because they have seen someone else demonstrate fearful behavior. The model may teach the child to fear dentists, police officers, dogs, or nearly anything. Siblings, peers, parents, caregivers, and everyone else in the child's environment are potential models.

Some fears are born of cultural norms and taboos. Children in multicultural settings will tend to reflect both the fears and coping strategies of home and neighborhood, religion, community, culture, and society. While a discussion of ethnic and cultural fears is beyond the scope of this article, it could be beneficial for caregivers to explore the specific heritages of clients to gain an insight into the nature and expression of fears as inherent in cultural background. For example, in mainstream American culture, boys are taught gender stereotypes which inhibit admission of certain fears. Some Native American cultures, on the other hand, promote admission of certain fears as acts of reverence for the natural world (Tikalsky & Wallace, 1988).

A Child's Temperament Affects Fearfulness
A child's temperament and sense of autonomy may influence the extent of and manner of reaction to a fearful event.

Ainsworth (1973) classified childhood temperaments as easy, difficult, and slow to warm up. The easy child takes the world as it comes, has regular body rhythms, and is flexible. At the other extreme, the difficult child is irritated and thrown off track by change, has irregular body rhythms, and tends to approach the world in an anxious and sometimes negative manner. The slow-to-warm-up temperament is evident in children who stand back to size up a situation before deciding whether or not to become involved. This sometimes shy, reserved child approaches the world cautiously. Theoretically, the easy child would be least fearful and would use a variety of coping strategies when faced with a fearful event. The difficult child would likely be assertive in resisting and would make her fears known, but the slow-to-warm-up child would be likely to abstain quietly from fear-inducing encounters and may be hesitant about making specific fears known to adults.

While not all people fit neatly into any one temperament type pigeonhole, understanding the general nature of the child's inborn temperament type can help adults to understand how the same event may produce varying reactions in different children.

The child's sense of autonomy may also influence how he interprets potentially fear-inducing events. According to Erikson (1950), the toddler begins to learn through life experiences how much control he has over himself and his world. A healthy sense of autonomy is tied to growing independence and self-will. The autonomous child has a sense of control and demonstrates a proactive, rather than reactive, approach to life. When we sense that we are capable of controlling ourselves and the events in our experiences, we tend to be less fearful. Teachers should promote a child's sense of autonomy. Part two of this article will provide practical ways to help young children cope with their fears.

Sandra Crosser, Ph.D., is associate professor at Ohio Northern University, Ada, Ohio.

Ainsworth, M.D.S. (1973).The development of infantmother attachment. In B. Caldwell & H. Ricciuti (Eds.), Review of Child Development Research (vol. 3), Chicago, 11: University of Chicago Press.

Erikson, E. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.

Ferrari, M. (1986). Fears and phobias in childhood: Some clinical and developmental considerations. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 17, 75- 87.

Jersild, A.T. & Holmes, F.B. (1933). A study of children's fears. Journal of Experimental Education, 11, 109-118.

Jones, E.A. & Borgers, S. (1988). Parent perceptions of children's fears. Elementary School Guidance and Counseling, 23, 10-15.

Jones, J. & Crosser, S. (1993). Fears and coping strategies of preschool children. Unpublished presentation at Association for Childhood Education International meeting, Phoenix, Arizona.

Murphy, D.M. (1985).Fears in preschool age children. Child Care Quarterly, 14,171-189.

Piaget, J. (1960). The child's conception of the world. London: Routledge. Ryall, M.R. & Dietiker, K.E. (1979).Reliability and clinical validity of ffie children's fear survey schedule. Journal of Behavioral Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 10, 303-309.

Smith, D.J. (1985). Preschool children's fears: Relationships among parent's and teacher's perceptions and children's self-reports. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Tikalsky, F.D. & Wallace, S.D. (1989). Culture and the structure of children's fears. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 19, 481-492.

Wooley, J.D. & Wellman, H.M. (1993). Origin and truffi: Young children's understanding of imaging mental representations. Child Development, 64,1-17.