With little ones – especially during this time of year – build on fun, not fear. Save spookings and scary costumes for the older kids.
Jerri Denton’s 4-year-old son, James, has a genuine fear of witches. “It’s because I scared him last year all dressed up as a creepy, ugly hag,” Denton admits. “He hasn’t forgotten that.” And that’s the way it goes.
“Toddler fears often stem from one scary experience,” says Kristy Hagar, Ph. D., co-author of Seven Steps to Help Your Child Worry Less (Specialty Press; $18). For example, a child who cries when his birthday balloon pops might become afraid of all balloons. Fear transforms in ages and stages. At around 9 months old, babies experience stranger anxiety, clinging to parents when confronted by people they don’t recognize and becoming distressed when one or both parents leave.
From ages 4 – 6, kids can worry about things that aren’t based in reality, such as fears of monsters and ghosts – or a parent dressed in a scary costume. Experts like Hagar and Stephen Barber, author of Monsters Under the Bed and Other Childhood Fears: Helping Your Child Overcome Anxieties, Fears and Phobias (Villard; $23) say the best tool parents can use to manage their young child’s fear is by changing their perceptions. For example, If your son screams at the sight of bugs, read him books about friendly ones or draw pictures of them. When he stops fearing the idea of insects, he may feel more brave around real ones.
And you can help your baby and toddler develop a sense of fun about things – it’s a powerful tool for handling scary situations, says Louis Franzini, Ph.D., author of Kids Who Laugh: How to Develop Your Child’s Sense of Humor (Square One Publishers; $14.95). Try these fun ideas for building your child’s inclination to laugh:
ages 0 – 1
Funny faces: Scrunch up, bug out your eyes, stick out your tongue.
Peekaboo: This is thrilling for babies because there is a brief threat – Mom or Dad disappears (the threat) but quickly reappears (the surprise).
Silly sounds: Make up noises while smiling and laughing, which defines the behavior as funny.
Wacky songs: Sing a well-known song like “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Once your child is familiar with it, you can pause dramatically before singing the “POP!” Your child will anticipate the pause, feel the comedic tension and laugh loudly when the punch line arrives.
ages 1 to 3
Add-ons: Sing any well-known nursery rhyme and add nonsense phrases like “in the tub” to the end of every line. The surprise is funny to your child, who is expecting to hear the familiar lines: “Rock-a-bye baby … in the tub! On the treetop – not in the tub!” Hilarious!
Crazy animal sounds: Pretend that certain animals make the sounds of other animals. For example, the cat goes “moo” and the horse goes “cock-a-doodle-doo.” Do as many as you can together.
Rhyming names: Make up funny rhyming names for friends, relatives or pets – for example, “Silly Billy” or “Bitty Kitty.” Kids this age will laugh heartily.
Susan Day is the Editorial Director for this publication. She has four children, ages 5, 10, 12 and 14.