Somewhere around two years old or so, many children seem to suddenly develop what we parents think are “unreasonable” fears. A happy-go-lucky child will suddenly cry every time mom or dad leaves his sight, a favored stuffed animal or toy will become scary, or other strange and unnamed fears will pop up. As parents, we may vacillate between concern and frustration—what on earth is going on?!
In truth, all sorts of developmental things are going on that contribute to these very real fears. Our children start to develop an imagination and have enough life experience to contribute to imagining and expanding their mental activity. They have also become attached to mom and dad and other things—enough so that when mom leaves the scene, the child can worry about where she is and if she is ever coming back. The child hasn’t developed the life experience and mental capacity to know and trust in mom’s return yet, but she knows that mom has left. This can be quite scary and disconcerting.
I have been fortunate in that my eldest daughter is one of those rare people who have an amazing memory. She can remember all sorts of details going back to her early childhood and can now share with me why some of the things I thought were unreasonable, became fears. Combinations that I knew nothing about—like a story, a movie and a stuffed animal seeming to move just as she was falling asleep made her scared of that stuffed animal for a year. Or, a dream that seemed so incredibly real that it stuck with her for months created what I thought was a silly, made-up fear. I think if we parents understand that the appearance of fears and worries is a developmental stepping stone for our children and that while we might not understand exactly what is going on for them, we can still provide support, care and teach them the coping strategies, we can be more present and understanding as parents. The appearance of fears and worries is not abnormal—quite the contrary—it means that our children are becoming more engaged and intellectually trying to process an often-confusing world. Our compassion and appreciation can help them learn how to work through those fears and continue along the path of development.