Our 4 year old is suddenly fearful!


Our four year old Marcus used to be quite bold.  New places and people didn't bother him, and he never expressed any fears.  In the past few months, however, we've noticed that he seems fearful in a lot of situations.  He doesn't want to leave our side for quite a while at a park or even at friend's home where he hasn't been before.  Sometimes he hides his face to avoid talking to someone.  He also talks about monsters and sometimes wants us to stay with him at night because there might be "something" in his room.  Most of the time he is very happy, cheerful, and outgoing, but this new development is puzzling to us.

Marcus isn’t alone.  Many children who parents have described as easy going and open to new experiences begin to act quite fearful at this age.  Younger children, of course, can be reluctant in unfamiliar places or situations, but their reluctance is usually part of a general need to take time to adjust.  As children get older they have an increased ability to understand that the world is not always safe for a little person.  A four year old is a sponge for learning about everything, and will listen and learn not just from his own experience but what he hears and learns from others.  Even if he has never been lost, he may have heard about another child who has been.  He can now imagine (a little) another person’t experience and how it might feel.  Like most children, has heard warnings from parents to stay close by in stores and parks, or to not talk to people they don't know. “I don’t want you to get lost” is an automatic statement from parents  when they want their children to stay nearby. At age four, Marcus can't sort out which places are situations and which ones are not, so he becomes more cautious.

It helps to let a child know that lots of other children his age like to stay close to their parents, or like to take time in a new situation.  You can talk to him about what will help him to feel more comfortable.  Many four year olds will have ideas about what they want you to do, and then you can work out a plan that begins with his request.  For example, if your child wants you to stay right next to him at the park, you can suggest that you stay right next to him for a few minutes and then sit where you can see him and he can see you at all times--a safe and sensible solution.  If your child doesn't want to leave your side when visiting a friend, you can tell him that you can stay for fifteen minutes (or as long as you want!) and then he can choose to stay or leave with you. Once a child is engaged in play he is less likely to focus on uncomfortable.

Other factors may be influencing Marcus right now as well. Four year olds have much more active imaginations than younger children.  They can imagine that a scary monster is lurking behind the half-closed door, or that the rustle of leaves outside the bedroom window is the movement of a bat waiting to swoop in and pounce.  It can help to tell young children that there are no monsters or bats that can come in the night, and it is certainly important to let your child know that you are quite certain that monsters and bats are not found in your neighborhood.  But the fears that Marcus expresses may be symbols of other fears, so the monster may represent something else to him. If you find that Marcus rejects your reassurances, don’t persist.

It is often useful to tell your child simple stories about yourself as a child having fears similar to his. You can also tell stories about an imaginary child who is “just like you”. .  Talk about how the child is scared of something that he's never seen, and that part of him knows that the things that are scary aren't real, but that part of him isn't quite sure.  Then imagine together some ways to help a child feel safe.  Some children like a special bedtime ritual, other children like to be told, "It's O.K. to be scared, because even though you think there's a monster in your room, I don't, so I can protect you."

Stories that are comforting can be part of your going to bed time together, but bedtime is not ideal for exploring your child’s feelings.  Why?  Because talking about what is upsetting or scary at bedtime is a good way to get your child into a state of anxiety, and his solution for those feelings are likely to be wanting a parent to stay with him longer. Most children can spin out a long tale of fear and danger if they figure out that that's a good way to keep a parent in their room, and the more they talk, the more fearful they become.  You can listen for a few minutes if you have the feeling that your child really needs to talk, but save the discussion for daylight. Tell your child that he can talk about his fears as long as he wants in the morning, and then be sure that you make the time for him if he needs it.

Keep in mind that a hidden source of fears for young children is television, movies and videos.  Even parents who monitor screen content don’t realize that “G” rated movies often have stories and themes that are frightening for children who identify with the character on screen.  Two of the most popular children’s movies, Finding Nemo and the Lion King, are essentially stories of children whose parents have been killed, leaving their children to fend for themselves in a world filled with danger.  Other films and cartoon adventures show the main character  being chased, being hurt, or being attacked by evil characters.  Even though a movie may have a happy ending, most young children will be strongly affected by images that they associate with danger.  A child may want to see a video that scares him, leading parents to think it’s OK, but the stories are stressful nevertheless.

Because you say that Marcus is thriving in other parts of his life, it is likely that this is a developmental stage that he’ll outgrow.  However, If you notice that Marcus’ fears and anxiety are getting worse, or if he starts to be reluctant to engage in activities that he used to enjoy, then it’s time to explore other causes.  The first step would be to simply spend more unstructured time together.  Free play time, art activities, or going for walks create times when a child can open up to a parent about anything that is bothering him.  A child might not be direct in words, but you might see him drawing pictures that show him to be vulnerable, or setting up a play scenario where conflicts don’t get worked out, or he may ask you questions about people and situations that he’s trying to sort out.  Talk to his teachers and ask friends if they have noticed any differences in Marcus when he plays with their children. You may find that there is something that is bothering Marcus that you can help him to resolve that will help him feel less anxious.