But the main reason for an increase in irrational fears after 18 months is the child’s awakening imagination, which begins to intermingle with such emotions as anger and jealousy. These strong feelings often find expression in fears of imaginary enemies, such as robbers, monsters and bogeymen. The toddler may refuse to stay in a room by himself, or he may demand that objects like scary masks or stuffed animals be put somewhere out of sight.
Fears arising from his imagination reach a peak between the ages of three and five. Struggling to distinguish between real and make-believe, children of this age often invent fantastic explanations for things they do not understand, and in the process, they may assign human feelings and motives to inanimate objects.
In the movie The Wizard of Oz, an apple tree gets angry and hits Dorothy when she picks an apple. A scarecrow talks with a lion and a mean lady turns into a witch. To a three year old, all this is quite believable. And because of a young child’s egocentric view of the world – his tendency to see himself as the pivotal player in every event – he imagines how all this might affect him. It may be a natural step for him to go from watching the movie fantasy to worrying that a witch or a tree might attack him in his own backyard.
Children also acquire fears through experience. A child who has been stung by a bee may fear all insects, just as one who can remember a painful inoculation may cringe at the mere mention of the doctor’s office. Fears can be triggered as well by abrupt changes in the family situation, such as the birth of a new sister or brother, or the divorce of the parents.
From your perspective as an adult, it is not always easy to anticipate the impact of the things that your child sees and hears. Realistic scenes of violence on television are a case in point. A preschooler who laughs in delight as Saturday morning cartoon characters get flattened and “ker-boomed” might react quite differently to a dramatized gun battle between humans or to news coverage of a car bombing. The child might jump to the conclusion that such live-action disasters could happen to him. As you think about appropriate viewing guidelines for your family, remember that the moving images and dramatic sounds of television make it an extremely vivid medium for a small child.
Occasionally, even the words and expressions you use in casual conversation may spark fears in your child, whose grasp of the language is not as sophisticated as yours. When you offhandedly say “May boss is going to kill me,” your youngster might take the statement at face value and start to worry that your life is really in danger.