Often times when a child suddenly starts exhibiting fears or nightmares, a parent’s gut reaction is to panic and imagine all the horrible things that might be causing these fears. Is someone hurting her? Is my ex-husband torturing her at his house? Did someone touch her in the wrong way?

It is certainly true that fears often coincide with times of high-anxiety in a child’s life. But before you let your imagination run wild, there are a couple of things you should remind yourself of: 1) Abuse is the least likely explanation for a child’s fears, and 2) The things parents fear and the things that most hurt children are frequently not the same.

For example, a child who suddenly exhibits fearful responses or other atypical behavior may leave parents wondering about something like molestation. This is most common precisely because it’s the one form of maltreatment that is largely intangible, symbolic, and unrelated to any actual physical harm. It’s easy to become paranoid over what you can’t see and what there’s no evidence for. Yet most incidents of what we classify as “molestation” (even when they do occur) are non-violent. Studies show that they typically evoke only mild discomfort and confusion at worst, and are often either pleasurable and/or intriguing to a child. Therefore fear is not a common response. (Throughout much of human history and even in many parts of the world still today, it’s customary for caretakers to fondle a child or otherwise stimulate them as a means of pacification or comforting. The damage from sexual abuse typically comes from cultural reactions rather than the experience; unless, of course, the experience was aggressive, painful, or intentionally humiliating, which thankfully, is rare. Most incidents are not the type of terrorized encounters where a child is sworn to secrecy under threat of death that we watch on fictional television shows.)

Meanwhile, parents frequently downplay and dismiss traumas such as divorce, which are frequently more damaging than conventional forms of abuse and are also more likely to provoke sudden fears or anxieties. Divorce can be rife with fear: fear over the possibility of parental abandonment; fear about the wellbeing of your parents; fear over having to move away or split time between houses; fear over having to adjust to a new neighborhood and new lifestyle; fear that if family can suddenly fall apart, then nothing in life is stable. These concerns can easily give rise to general anxiety and other seemingly unrelated phobias. Yet we often encounter parents who seem intent on chasing ghosts. When their child suddenly becomes phobic or anxiety prone, they are inclined to suspect that their ex must be doing something sinister behind their back, rather than recognize the more likely conclusion that the divorce has been traumatic and this is what is causing a child’s distress.

Dozens of situations in life can create just as much stress and anxiety for a child as do conventional types of maltreatment. In 999 cases out of 1,000, there are perfectly logical (or in the case of kids, illogical) sources for a child’s sudden terror that has nothing to do with assorted boogeymen overtly mistreating them behind your back. So while maltreatment is a potential source of anxiety, it is also the least likely explanation for a child’s fears or phobias. Therefore try not to panic or let your imagination get the better of you.

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