What to Do When Your Child Feels Scared

frightened children scared by ghosts

What do you do when your child feels scared? Fear is a useful emotion. It teaches children caution and helps prevent them from taking unnecessary risks.

Some children are afraid of nothing. Others seem scared of their own shadow — both extremes are completely normal. 

Common childhood fears include:

  • Loud noises, like thunder and fireworks
  • New situations, such as starting school
  • Strangers and unfamiliar adults
  • The dark and monsters

Most children grow out of childhood fears naturally. As adults, we all still have fears and these early experiences help us learn how to cope with them.

Different fears at different ages

Very young children may show separation anxiety where they are frightened to be away from you. They may seem clingy, not wanting to move away from you, and cry when you try to leave them, even for just a few seconds.

Young children have big imaginations. They can find it hard to separate fantasy from reality. So the things that you find mild or even amusing can frighten your child. Common fears like a monster under bed seem very real to them. 

frightening lightning storm

As your child gets older, their fears become about real-life situations, like extreme weather or being burgled. They may worry about events they hear about on the TV or overhear adults discussing, such as war.

Fears change as your child gets more experience of the world. Older children and young people tend to have social fears about fitting in, embarrassing themselves, or making a social mishap.

Fears about COVID-19

Many children have been frightened by the COVID pandemic. They’ve seen scary news reports and been warned about getting too close to other people.

If your child seems worried, take some time to let them share their fears. Talk to them honestly about what’s going on, but focus on the positive moments within the pandemic. Help them put their fears into proportion.

Our free Support Talk video series, called Bouncing Forward, explores the COVID years and shares lots of practical suggestions you can use at home to help your child with big emotions, like fear. Find out more.

How to help when your child feels scared

With younger children, hugs and cuddles can help them feel safe and secure, especially if they seem agitated. You might snuggle together on the sofa during a scary bit of a film or hold hands when walking into a new situation.

Think about age ratings on TV, online sites and video games to avoid introducing new fears. Look at this useful Quick Read about screen time if you’re finding it’s creating arguments in your family.

With older children, you can use words to reassure them. Tell your child you are with them and they are safe. Don’t try to minimise or ridicule their fear.

Instead of saying, “Don’t be scared,” you could say, “I know you’re feeling scared, and that’s okay. We all feel frightened sometimes.”

child scared of the dark at bedtime

Help when your child feels scared by using a gradual approach. For example, if they’re scared of the dark, you might slowly move from having the light on, to using a bedside lamp, and eventually to just a light on in the corridor. 

Avoid forcing them to “face their fears” as this can just make them worse. Instead, involve them wherever possible, so, if they think there’s a monster under the bed, you could let them look for one with you to check they’re safe. 

Most children gradually and naturally move on from childhood fears, but some will require some extra support. 

Talk to your GP if your child:

  • Seems to have extreme fears
  • Has physical symptoms like breathlessness, dizziness, or feeling sick
  • Has fears that stop them from doing everyday things

Extreme fears that do not seem to improve can be a sign that your child is struggling with anxiety and would benefit from expert help.

Next steps

If your child struggles with big emotions, like fear, or you want to understand more about their behaviour, check out our webinar sessions and parenting classes.

Our expert coaches will help you unpick challenging behaviour and understand what your child is trying to communicate. Browse our upcoming events.