Fred Rogers talks about
"The preschool years are years of intense feelings, but most children aren't yet able to use words well enough to express those feelings. Many things can be scary to them -- things that are real and imaginary – and, like all of us, they carry their own "inner dramas" which color everything they see and do. So it’s natural that not all children develop the same fears, and that some children are more fearful than others.”
Where Children’s Fears Might Come From
Children are most often afraid of things that actually do what they themselves are trying not to do. For instance, when children are trying to master the urge to bite, they can become very frightened of things that represent biting, like barking dogs, alligator puppets with big teeth, even pliers, nutcrackers, or still pictures of wild animals in a book.
Such fears might also grow out of children's struggles with their own angry feelings at their parents for making rules and setting limits, paying more attention to a new baby than to them, or for not giving them something they really want. Children can be afraid of getting too angry at their parents because they wonder if maybe their anger could result in losing their parent's love, and that would be devastating. They sometimes project those angry feelings onto some outside thing -- a dog, a tiger, a vacuum cleaner or a toilet drain -- and then they fear that the very angry thing may just destroy them. Most fears like that tend to calm over time, especially as children realize that a parent can be both loving and angry…and that they themselves can have both loving and angry feelings toward their parents.
The Magic Years
Preschool years are also "magic" years, when children think that things happen by magic…or wishing…or pretending. Children don't yet know the difference between what's real and what's pretend. Monsters, ghosts, and nightmares can seem very real, so can scary-looking cartoon or puppet characters in movies or on computers or television.
Because children don't understand how machines work compared to how bodies work, they might think, for example that vacuum sweepers, lawn mowers, heavy construction equipment, have lives of their own and could uncontrollably gobble up things -- even children! They might also worry, "If a doll's arm breaks off, that might happen to my arm!" Even when a mother looks different because of a new hairstyle or different glasses, a child could be scared that that she might have changed into an entirely different person. In fact, sometimes children wonder if just putting on a mask or costume might change them into someone different.
One of the most important ways to work on fears is through their play. When children play about something that's scary for them, they are in charge. They don't have to feel so small, helpless, and scared. Each time children play about something, they understand it a little bit better, and they’re able to grow a little bit stronger and less afraid.
Parents Can Help Children Feel Safe
Parents want their children to be afraid of some things, because fears can keep children from doing dangerous things. But we don't want our children to develop irrational fears that hold them back from doing healthy things, sleeping well, and making friends.
Part of our "job" as parents is to help our children feel safe and secure. Sometimes it can be very frustrating to try to explain to a frightened child that a monster or witch or some other imaginary thing isn't real. We adults have already learned that, but our children are just beginning.
If you can remember some things you were afraid of when you were a child, you know what it feels like to be scared. Thinking about your own childhood fears helps you be more in touch with your fearful child and also assures you that, at some point, children can outgrow those fears.
There are many times in life when we can't solve our children's problems or get rid of their fears. Perhaps all we can do is to provide a safe, loving home and a willingness to listen while our children work through whatever is bothering them. "Being there" is often the most active and helpful kind of support parents can give.
This article is excerpted from “The Mister Rogers Parenting Book” the last book Fred Rogers worked on before his death in 2003. In this book he wanted to support parents in their most important work of parenting and to help them better understand their young children. As he wrote in the introduction to the book:
“.. if we can bring our children understanding, comfort, and hopefulness when they need this kind of support, then they are more likely to grow into adults who can find these resources within themselves later on.”