During the day, three-year-old Xavier Chew is a happy and fearless little boy. Heights are no issue, and dogs don’t scare him at all. “He’ll even crush ants with his bare hands!” says his mom, Amanda Barnier. But every night, before he’s tucked into bed, this otherwise confident toddler softly asks his parents, “Please make sure there are no spiders in my room.”
Xavier’s fear of spiders began last fall, a few months before his third birthday. One night he awoke in tears, saying a spider scared him. Barnier looked around, and told him there were no spiders in his room and that he was safe. But the tearful nighttime episodes continued. “It took us about two months to realize he was dreaming about spiders,” she says.
The family cat, Cashmere, came to the rescue. “I told Xavier that Cashmere was a champion spider hunter and she’s in his room every night before bed, making sure there are none,” Barnier says. And it worked. Xavier went from waking up a few times a week to just a few times a month.
According to Tamara Soles, a psychologist in Montreal, these sudden and unexplainable fears are common in toddlers, and in most cases, they stem from normal and healthy developmental phases. “At each stage that a child becomes more cognitively developed and aware, and understands their environment in different ways, this can trigger different things,” she says. It’s likely that monsters in the closet have nothing to do with monsters and everything to do with a change that has the toddler feeling anxious, like a new routine that separates her from a parent more. “But for small kids to be able to articulate this can be very difficult, so it usually crops up in other ways,” says Soles.
Barnier racked her brain trying to figure out where Xavier saw a scary spider, but Calgary-based psychologist Cassandra White says parents can’t pre-dict which fears are going to stick with kids. She explains that while some children may have been exposed to things or absorbed a worry from a caregiver, sometimes fears just develop on their own. “What we do want to do is find out more about whatever it is they’re actually trying to tell us,” she says. One of White’s clients thought their child was afraid of shopping malls, when it turns out that the hand dryers in the washrooms were the real issue. Using investigative skills will help source out the problem, she says. “It might not be what it initially appears.”
Both Soles and White say it’s a natural response for parents to want to protect their children from the things they’re afraid of, but avoiding the fear can actually make it worse. Instead, the first thing parents should do is validate the concern by acknowledging it, saying, for example, “It can feel really scary to be in the dark, can’t it?” Then support the child in facing those fears by, say, reading books about them or even taking a trip to the zoo to see an animal they’re afraid of.
“We want to teach them it’s OK—they can handle this—and that parents or other adults are there to support them if they need help,” says White. “The more they have that message, the less power that fear has.”
Play is one of the best ways to work through anxiety with young children. Soles recommends trying role-reversal games where you become the person who’s afraid. “You do it in an exaggerated and silly way, and the child gets to be the one in control.”
Another example she gives is to play chase where you’re the monster. But instead of being a scary monster, you’re a big, bumbling monster who trips every time you get close. When kids can learn to laugh at their fears, it makes them less powerful and less scary. And because, as the monster, you never catch your child (unless they let themselves be caught), the game helps them remain in control.
Why are some kids more timid than others? Soles explains we’re all wired to detect potential danger, but in some kids, those alarms are a little more sensitive than others, causing them to attribute danger to things that are harmless. If a fear is affecting your child’s day-to-day routine, preventing them from sleeping or making them too scared to go to preschool, then it’s no longer a healthy fear and it’s time to talk to a doctor.
Whether your child will grow out of his fear is difficult to predict. White says kids’ anxieties usually change over time, which is developmentally natural. “It’s normal for all of us to have our fears, whether it’s a fear of heights or whatever, as long as they don’t affect us on a daily basis.”
As for Xavier, he’s doing much better. “Maybe the cat really is doing her job,” Barnier laughs.