Mom and daughter afraid or sad

Why Children’s Fears Increase in the 2nd Year

by Dr. Linda Acredolo, co-founder the Baby Signs® Program

Although signing with babies is my passion, I also enjoy sharing other insights about development. Here’s an example from Baby Hearts, my book co-authored with Dr. Susan Goodwyn.

Along with cake and ice cream, a child’s first birthday brings with it a not so nice gift – a significant increase in the number of things that make a child afraid. Why the increase in fear after the first birthday? Much of the responsibility can be traced to changes in the child’s mental skills. Unfortunately, however, these changes aren’t balanced by nearly enough knowledge of how the world actually works! The result is fear of things that you and I know from experience aren’t likely to happen – like getting sucked up by vacuum cleaners or flushed down the toilet. We may know the laws of mechanics that make such things impossible, but our toddlers and preschoolers clearly don’t!

Here are some of the other reasons why the list of fears inevitably grows longer between years 1 and 5:

The wonderful – and not so wonderful – world of imagination. Towards the middle of the second year, the toddler brain begins to be able to do something that sets humans apart from other animals – create ideas and images that have little if any basis in reality and then ponder those ideas and images at will. This is a fancy way to say that children begin to use their imaginations. The good news is that this ability enables them to have fun pretending to be firemen or ballerinas; the bad news is that this same ability enables them to imagine bogey men and monsters.

What’s Real and What’s Not? Toddlers face a particularly interesting challenge when it comes to distinguishing fantasy from reality. Their new awareness of their own thoughts and dreams doesn’t come with an automatic recognition that these are “all in the head.” Ask your toddler if you’d be able to watch his dream if you came into his room while he was dreaming and he’s likely to say “yes.” Very young children think of their dreams as taking place in real time and space, which is one reason they find nightmares so up-setting and can’t dismiss the image in their head of that same monster under the bed.

Down Memory Lane. Very young infants live by necessity “in the here and now.” The downside of this is that they don’t get to relive the happy moments of their short lives – the delightful games of tickle, the warm and snuggly moments in mom’s arms, the giddy back and forth of their swing. The upside, however, is that very young infants also can’t remember the scary moments. Unfortunately, toddlers and preschoolers, due to much improved memory capacities, definitely can! This means that a single harrowing experience with a dog, clown, or merry-go-round can haunt them for days, weeks, months, or even years to come.

A Different Perspective. It also doesn’t help matters that toddlers are so little. To them, the barking Labrador Retriever isn’t just a dog; it’s a dog the size of a horse! And the room full of strange relatives doesn’t just have lots of new folks in it; it’s full of people who tower over the child. Weaving through all the legs – even holding on to Mommy’s hand – is an intimidating journey!

On the Go. One final reason toddlers and preschoolers are more vulnerable than infants to developing fears is the simple fact that they get around better! Not much scary can happen when you’re confined to a highchair or crib, but let your world expand to include the yard, the park, and the neighborhood, and the chances of encountering something unexpected and scary increase markedly.

The good news is that knowing signs can help toddlers communicate their fears to the adults around them. The AFRAID sign is the most obvious, but not the only candidate. For example, when AFRAID is paired with the sign for DOG the message is clear: that four-legged thing ain’t no friend of mine!

Afraid Diaper Doodle
Afraid Diaper Doodle

I actually speak from experience on this point. One night when my son Kai was about 15 months old, he suddenly began screaming when I tried to put him in his bed. I was nonplussed – until Kai did the sign for SPIDER. Then I remembered. That morning when I had lifted him out of bed, a big black spider had landed on his arm and he’d been both startled and upset. I had forgotten all about the incident – but he clearly hadn’t. The good news was that thanks to the sign, I knew what the problem was and together we looked through all the bedclothes. Finding no spider, Kai was reassured and settled down to sleep. (The bad news is that, even at age 25, Kai is still phobic about spiders!)


Download a free poster or watch the video below with the ASL sign for Afraid.