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Is it normal for my preschooler to be anxious?
Yes, some anxiety is a normal part of your child's behavioral and emotional development. As an infant, your child wasn't very aware of much beyond her familiar, reassuring world. But as she grows, she's learning that the larger world is less predictable: Bees sting, playmates grab her toys, and parents leave for hours at a time. These unpredictable things inevitably cause anxiety.
Your child may worry about starting preschool, become afraid of the dark, feel afraid of the dog next door, or be nervous about riding a bicycle. Imaginations can run wild at this age, so she may fear things that seem outlandish – pirates, space aliens, or unseen monsters. And because she's so acutely aware of her environment, she may be more sensitive when she hears her parents fight, discuss an overdue bill, or talk about a sick relative.
Over time, most children let go of their more fanciful anxieties and get better at taking everyday events in stride.
What kinds of anxiety do preschoolers experience?
Here are some common preschooler anxieties:
Separation anxiety. Separation anxiety usually peaks at about 18 months, but it can resurface off and on until well beyond kindergarten. A relapse is typically triggered by a particular event, such as starting at a new school, changing babysitters, or staying overnight at a friend's house. Your child's struggle to establish his own separate identity naturally gives rise to moments of trepidation.
Stranger suspicion. By age 2, your child probably has begun to see outsiders as a threat. Any new face – no matter how friendly – might upset him, though he'll probably calm down once the stranger retreats. (He should eventually outgrow this fear, usually before he turns 3.)
Typical fears. Preschoolers can have a wide variety of fears: Monsters in the closet. The neighbor's dog. The flush of a toilet. The kiddie pool. These fears may arise from real experiences, such as being cornered by a dog or witnessing a car accident. However, your preschooler is just as likely to fear something he's only heard about, such as tornadoes, giant cockroaches, or meat-eating dinosaurs.
The two primary reasons for these fears are his active imagination and lack of life experience, which can make even the mundane seem menacing. Plus, preschoolers are very impressionable, so he may adopt the fears of playmates, siblings, TV and movie characters, or even you.
Social anxiety. Timidity is common among preschoolers. Some interact easily with other children but fall to pieces in the company of adult strangers. Others feel secure among adults but crumble around their peers. Some are anxious in any new situation. Fortunately, most preschoolers outgrow shyness over time.
School avoidance. Some kids have meltdowns when it's time to go to school. Even if they like school one day, the next they may beg to stay home, even complain of a stomachache. The root cause could be separation anxiety or something going on at school – such as teasing, a fight with a friend, or an upsetting comment.
How can I help my child manage her anxiety?
When your child is anxious or fearful, follow your instincts – offer a cuddle and reassurance. But don't stop there. Helping your child overcome her fears takes creativity and patience. Try these tips:
Acknowledge the fear. Some of your child's worries are entirely normal, and denying them would be unrealistic. If she's afraid of losing you in a store, for example, tell her that would scare you as much as it does her.
Reassure her that's why you watch her so closely and it's also why she should always stay where she is able to see you. Also point out store employees who could help if she ever gets separated from you. And when you leave her with a babysitter, remind her that you always come back.
Talk it out. Simply discussing a fear can make it seem less overwhelming. Your preschooler has an active imagination but a limited vocabulary, so she may have trouble explaining why she's afraid. But with some coaching from you, she can better articulate her feelings: Is she sad, angry, scared?
Many parents find that helping children find words to describe their fears can ease anxiety. Listening to your child can also give you the information you need to banish a specific fear. You might discover that her dread of the water is actually a fear of giant squid, which (as you can explain) don't live in swimming pools.
Give her a break. Instead of discouraging clinginess, focus on building up your child's confidence until she's more comfortable. Forcing your child to pet a dog that's twice her size or go to sleep without a nightlight won't ease her fear. At this age, she's better off conquering her fears at her own pace.
Use your imagination. Laughter goes a long way toward diffusing anxiety. If your child fears thunderstorms, tell her a story about a magical being who makes lightning bolts.
Get rid of scary monsters night. When the lights go out, all sorts of fears can surface. Your preschooler may worry that monsters are hiding in the closet or under her bed. To ease her anxiety, make her bed as inviting as possible.
If your child is afraid of monsters hiding in the closet, you can say, "I looked, and there aren't any monsters. But you can keep this flashlight here to scare away the pretend monsters." A nightlight also makes an effective monster deterrent and can help her reorient herself if she wakes up in the wee hours.
Another parent-tested approach is to establish a bedtime routine and stick to it. Make sure she has enough time for a bath, a story, and some quiet moments before the lights go out. Avoid arguments and battles before bed so she goes to sleep feeling calm.
Buck convention. Until your child outgrows her fears, do whatever it takes to reassure her. For example, if your child won't take a bath because she thinks she'll get sucked down the drain, let her sit on a low, plastic chair in the tub. Give her a special washcloth and let her clean herself with a shower attachment or a bucket of warm water. Eventually, you can fill the tub with a few inches of water ("just to warm your toes"), and gradually increase the amount.
Be prepared. If your child tends to get nervous in large gatherings or new situations, she'll probably do better if she knows what to expect. Let her know she'll be meeting new people and going to a new place. Be positive. If she seems anxious, ask her to articulate her fears so together you can come up with ways to calm them. Encourage her to bring a favorite toy or stuffed animal for security. When you arrive, give your child time to adjust, even if she spends the first half hour on your lap.
When should I seek professional help?
Although your preschooler's fears can seem extreme, they are most likely developmentally normal. However, talk to your child's doctor if his anxieties interfere with family activities, prevent him from making friends, become an excuse to stay home from daycare or school, disrupt his sleep, or result in compulsive behavior. His doctor can refer you to a family counselor or child psychiatrist who can help.