What’s Normal and What’s Abnormal?

Fears typically start to emerge in earnest around age 2, and usually start to abate at around age 6 or 7, at which time normal early childhood fears are replaced by more realistic anxieties about life in general.

Typical preschool and early childhood fears

It’s quite common for preschoolers to go through phases in which they periodically become afraid of different things. The most common fears are over monsters or the dark or clowns or people in costume, but they can also come up with some rather unique (and irrational) fears that leave parents scratching their head.

These anxieties arise as children become more aware of different things around them, but are still young enough that they hold many flawed assumptions and magical beliefs about the world. “A preschooler’s imagination is really blossoming, and he can often concoct some scary explanations for things that he’s not sure about,” says Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., author of Freeing Your Child from Anxiety. (Hester, 2013, p. 98)

Normal fears among elementary school children

School age kids tend to worry more about things like humiliation at school, car accidents, the potential for nuclear war, and other realistic concerns. These fears are frequently exaggerated and overblown, but they’re based on conceivable threats.

Around one-third of school-age children will experience fears that reoccur, though adults may not always be aware of these fears. Older kids often feel embarrassed about their anxieties and so they are reluctant to share their feelings with others.

When do a child’s fears become a problem?

Generally speaking, the lipnus test to distinguish between normal childhood fears that a child is likely to outgrow and something more serious is the degree to which a fear affects a child’s life and impedes their functioning.

Normal fears:

  • Are based upon a realistic assessment of actual threats
  • Occur during a typical developmental stage
  • Respond to parental comforting and tend to abate after a while

Unhealthy/abnormal fears:

  • Disrupt a child’s day to day life
  • Will prevent them from functioning normally or doing things other kids might do
  • Are based on unlikely, unrealistic, or imaginary dangers (such as obsessively fearing a plane crash.)

Children who experience chronic fears that regularly create a disruption in daily life may struggle with an underlying condition such as an anxiety disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder.

Why children are more susceptible to fear than adults

Fear originates from an emotional hub of the brain known as the amygdala. When this area is active, it sends out signals to other areas of the brain, which then assist in interpreting those fears. Whereas fear originates in a “primitive” part of the brain that is more or less fully developed in children from the very beginning, the brain centers in the prefrontal cortex that play a critical role in suppressing such signals in order to keep our fears in check are still underdeveloped in children.

In other words, kids have a brain that is capable of generating intense fear but ill-equipped at regulating these signals. Hence, children struggle to reign in their fears once something triggers these emotional reactions.

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