When kids develop fears of a specific person

When a child develops a fear towards a particular person, a parent’s first reaction is often to suspect abuse or wonder if this person is hurting their child. (See also: Are fears in children a sign of abuse?) But there are any number of other reasons that children may come to fear a particular person, none of which revolve around anything sinister.

For example, when working as a preschool teacher, we played this game with the kids called “booga booga,” in which I would pretend to be a caveman and run around the playground with a plastic wiffle ball bat, pretending to try and bop the kids over the head. When one got close I would yell “booga booga!” and swing the bat, either comically falling down in the process or intentionally missing them and striking the ground close by, giving them just enough time to get away. The children thought it was the most hilarious thing in the world. They would run away giggling, then turn and taunt me to chase them again, yelling “booga booga, bet you can’t get me!”

All the kids loved the game. All of them, that is, except for one timid little girl. She hated it. Once I realized this, I stopped chasing her, but she still hated the fact that it was played with the other kids. She would run to a teacher (or to her mother, who happened to be an aide at the school and sometimes was close by), crying about her dread that I might bonk her cabesa and damage that precious brain of hers. We reasoned with her, we explained it was only a game and that I would sooner hurt myself than hurt her, but all to no avail.

In this particular instance, her mother worked at the center, so she knew what this anxiety was all about and knew her daughter’s terror was silly and misplaced. But in other circumstances, this girl’s sudden fear of me might have alarmed many parents. It may have created deep suspicions that in the worst of cases end in false allegations of abuse.

This is just one example among thousands demonstrating how children can come to fear a particular person. There are any number of other reasons: A mustache may make someone look like a pirate. A person with a heavy accent strikes a child as suspicious. A man resembles a shady character a child saw in a movie. A person who walks with a limp provokes anxiety about body autonomy. Children can become afraid of someone without that person doing anything to warrant such fears.

Children who are afraid of men

Some small children, typically girls, may exhibit an unusual fear towards men. Most often this is seen in children who have lived in abusive households with a male aggressor. Even if a child was an infant at the time, exposure to male-dominated violence can imprint them with a fear towards men in general.

Other kids seem to develop such fears without anything in their past that might explain such behavior, and it’s hard to say for certain where these fears might originate. It could be that the larger stature and deeper voice of some men scares her. It’s also established that even animals sometimes react differently to men as compared to women, indicating that there could be something biological going on in which males and their higher testosterone are interpreted as more of a threat.

Regardless of where this fear originates, caretakers should go out of their way to expose children to nurturing males. DO NOT cater to their fear by helping your child avoid interaction with men. These kids need twice as much exposure to caring males, not less of it. Find some men who are nurturing, and introduce them to your child. Start with them on your lap, move to trying to get a child to play with him while you watch, and work up to the point where she is okay with this person caring for her.

Dealing with a child’s fear of people

The following tips and advice will help you deal with people fears of all different types:

  1. Try to find out what is driving this fear. Does the person have unusual features? Did something about him scare her? These fears are typically irrational, but if you’re worried about abuse, you can read your child our book Tell Me Little Bear, which is designed to get kids to open up while minimalizing the danger of false allegations or fabricated memories.
  1. Another technique that can often reveal the source of a child’s fear is to select pictures from magazines or the Internet of all different types of people. Show each one to your child and ask them whether this person is good or bad, and why so. This should help you discern patterns in the way the child judges others.
  1. Use your power of persuasion to paint over your child’s negative image with a positive one. Talk about how you admire her haircut or think he’s handsome, or that you find so and so a charming fellow or find their attributes interesting. If your child exhibits irrational fears towards a particular person or group of people, you should go out of your way to promote the opposite perspective. Kids really do follow your lead and will change their own opinions depending on what you think.
  1. Make a point of talking to this person (or type of person) when your child is around. Sparking up a quick conversation in the checkout line with the teen who has black hair and facial piercings or the charcoal-skinned black man can go a long way towards easing a child’s anxiety about those who appear different.
  1. Talk to kids about personal expression and how some people choose to dye their hair or cut their mustache a certain way or pierce their nose or face because they want to be unique. They want to turn their body into a work of art. We don’t necessarily have to agree with that choice, (you can still tell your kid you’ll have a heart-attack if they ever mutilate their body like this), but it’s a sign that someone wants to stand out or express themselves, not that they’re a bad person.

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