When kids have irrational fears — Good Parenting


Dear Dr. Debbie,

My 3-year-old somehow picked up a fear of the wind. He gets nervous if there’s even a slight breeze. Since he was 2 and 1/2, he would often cover his ears if we were outside saying, “Too windy!” We were picnicking the other day and he barely ate any food since he was more concerned about keeping his hand on his napkin the whole time. He kept saying the wind might blow it away. Do you think this irrational fear will pass?

His Mom

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Dear Mom,

Temporary “irrational” fears are fairly common in preschoolers. Humans are born with several natural fears — darkness, loud noises, sudden movement or falling, and bizarre-looking faces. We are descended from ancient ancestors who reacted protectively when confronted by such potential dangers. There could be many things a loud noise could have warned them of — the crack of a tree limb about to fall, the roar of an animal on the hunt or the rumble of an approaching thunderstorm. These, therefore, should be considered “rational” fears.

Unfortunately, a child may form an association between an unsettling experience (fostered by a natural fear) and a “trigger” that stirs up the remembered emotion. A trigger is something that otherwise is perfectly harmless, such as a calm breeze on a sunny day. It seems that your son associates the sound and or movement of the wind, even a faint wind, with being in harm’s way. This causes him to be on high alert as soon as he senses it.

Let’s imagine the event which may have caused such an “irrational” fear to get rooted in his brain. Perhaps he became aware that the winds were picking up and the sky darkening the time you rushed him away from the playground to get home before a rainstorm. Young children are very sensitive to the emotions of their caregivers, paying close attention so they’ll know whether or not things are okay. Jerry knows something’s up by the pitch of your voice, the quickness of your steps, and the words you may have been using — “Oh no! We’ll be in big trouble if we don’t get moving!” The co-occurring sound of rustling leaves was filed in his brain alongside his awareness that you were flustered as the wind rose up.

Never belittle a child for being afraid. Your response helps him learn how to manage his feelings on his own someday. Responding appropriately to our fears is extremely important if we are to act in our own best interests. This served our ancient ancestors well! You should remain calm and reassuring when Jerry expresses his fear. Acknowledge that there indeed is something going on that has his attention, but also point out the elements of the situation that will assure his safety. (The napkin, you may understand, represents himself and his vulnerability.) “Yes, there is a breeze. We’ll make sure your napkin won’t blow away. We can pick it up if it does. That wind isn’t very strong. We’ll go home if any big winds come along.”

Help him to feel more power and control by pretending together to be the wind when you are safely inside. Start out gently, and increase the level of your wind making as he’s comfortable. Whisper like soft breezes. Puff some bigger and bigger gusts. Eventually you can be tornados, twirling each other around with your powerful blowing. Add some small pieces of tissue paper to your wind play for a great visual effect. Or let the bubble bath face the wrath of your windstorms.

You can also use picture books to help a child be more comfortable with the wind. Two of my favorites are “Gilberto and the Wind,” by Marie Hall Ets and “The Wind Blew” by Pat Hutchins.

An irrational fear will pass if a child has many experiences to convince him that he is not really in danger. Pardon the irresistible pun, but I expect with patience and time, your son’s fear of the wind will blow over.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at [email protected]