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My almost three-year-old son’s room, as well as our sleeping room, is equipped with a smoke detector. A few weeks ago, the one in our sleeping room went off and was beeping very loudly for ten seconds while he was in the room. There was no apparent reason for this (probably an insect, cosmic radiation or an act of Loki) and this was the only such event in the year we had those detectors.

A week later, he started being afraid of smoke detectors. Symptoms include:

  • He does not wish to enter our room. If he does, he often starts hiding on the bed under the blanket. He also avoids his own room sometimes .
  • He tells stories about smoke detectors being loud and evil.
  • He apparently suffers from nightmares involving smoke detectors, but he cannot communicate what he experienced.
  • When going to bed, he sometimes insists on one of us staying in the room and sleeps only with his hands put over his ears (to dampen the sound), which in turn makes it more difficult for him to fall asleep.

He has overcome similar irrational fears before, but this time the nature of his fears makes it quite difficult to address the issue with explanation, demonstration, and trust:

  • The concept of a smoke detector is already quite difficult to explain to him, though he seems to have understood it. But it’s seems to be beyond his grasp that there is a small probability that a smoke detector raises a false alert (of course, we explained it in less abstract terms).

  • As he is afraid of the possibility of the smoke detector making a sound, we cannot demonstrate that it is harmless in this respect. If we take the smoke detector off the ceiling, he agrees to hold it in his hands.

  • As one smoke detector did actually go off (and caused harm in form of noise), we are less convincing when assuring him that they are harmless.

While his fears have not yet reached a worrisome extent, I would be curious about other ways to tackle this issue. I prefer answers that do not involve lying or dismantling the smoke detectors as I want to support him dealing with his fears not just remove the symptoms.

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    I will say that it sounds like you're mostly doing the right thing - some of this may well involve time. – Joe Sep 25 '15 at 17:36
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    Pretend to be afraid of it. Be extra scared and panic-y when your son goes "beep", pretending to mistake it for the alarm. Make it a game and he will laugh at you and loosen up about it. And this does not conflict at all with the already-provided answers. In general there's no reason to be afraid of it. – aliteralmind Sep 25 '15 at 18:53
  • A friend started telling her toddler the smoke detector was "the safety light" after he got confused/afraid of it (though it hadn't gone off). Combined with whatever else you do, giving him something nice to think about it to supplant the negative impression he already has may help – twotwotwo Sep 27 '15 at 21:05
  • Does he know what he should do if the alarm goes off? I imagine the noise (or even the prospect of noise) is much more distressing if the only thing it really means to you is pain. Fire drills are still recommended practice, right? – user11971 Sep 28 '15 at 1:22
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    @MaikaSakuranomiya: He comes to our room in the middle of the night, being half asleep, half distressed, speaking about the smoke detector doing something terrible. – Wrzlprmft Apr 14 at 9:15

14 Answers 14

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Smoke detectors are not "harmless", especially if you are three years old and had one going off suddenly.

Can you explain to him how they work? Not the technical details, but the purpose: smoke -> alarm -> safety. And that they have to be very loud so that they wake everyone up in case of a fire? They are like the siren on a police car, fire truck or ambulance: loud, frightening and an important warning system.

This is one of the rare cases where I'd try to fight fire with fire: Let him set the alarm off with a incense stick or whatever triggers yours (practise before when he's not home!), so that he can see for himself how they work. Use earplugs, if necessary. And explain that in the last instance the alarm had a malfunction - it misunderstood something and went off, but it meant well - it "thought" there was a real danger, so it sounded the alarm. This method should work best if he's interested in all kinds of machinery (and lots of little boys are) and is probably the non-destructive variety of dismantling the thing.

If it goes off next time, he must know that there might be a real fire and that you are prepared to deal with this accordingly. Perhaps an explanation on proper procedure in real emergencies would fit nicely here, too, like what to do, what not, where to go, etc. (And if the smoke detector goes off again, replace it, but that's probably pretty obvious.)

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    I'd suggest doing the demonstration outside, so it's a little less loud (the noise isn't bouncing off the walls back at you) and also to include a general fire safety lesson (it's dangerous and hot, we want it to stay outside, that's why our smoke detector is here to tell us when the dangerous hot stuff is INSIDE). – Acire Sep 25 '15 at 17:26
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    @Wrzlprmft, re. false positive: Has there ever been an event when he himself "raised a false alarm"? A "wasp" that was a fly, a monster on the wall that was the shadow of a toy, anything where he thought something was dangerous and it was completely harmless? That could help him understand that we as humans may be very sure about something and still be wrong - and so can a machine. (Luckily, at that age kids are quite willing to anthrophomorphize objects.) – Stephie Sep 25 '15 at 17:45
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    @Oliphaunt Depends a lot on how you get the message across - it can also give a sense of power "I know how to deal with this". – Stephie Sep 25 '15 at 21:45
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    Perhaps if you helped him think of the smoke detector as a person rather than a thing, he will understand that it wanted to do its job and keep him safe, but it made a mistake. The other thing is, there is no reason to have one in your bedroom. Outside in the hall is fine. In fact probably better, as it will react faster to a fire elsewhere. Having one in every room is definite overkill. – Paul Johnson Sep 27 '15 at 14:59
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    @PaulJohnson I highly disagree re: no reason to have one in your bedroom. Every major fire-prevention organization I found suggested having one in there. E.g., the NFPA: "Install smoke alarms in every bedroom, outside each sleeping area and on every level of your home." – tonysdg Sep 27 '15 at 18:54
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If you want him to understand, use a simple concept that he should already be familiar with at that age: a mistake.

The smoke detector is supposed to detect smoke and warn people about it, but this time it made a mistake, just like he does sometimes. Oops!

And just like he gets frustrated when Mommy and Daddy remember a mistake he made forever and ever and keep bringing it up even after he believes he's learned his lesson, (because all kids think their parents do this all the time, even if the parents don't think they are!), he should understand that the smoke detector just made a mistake and it will try to not make the same mistake again, and he shouldn't keep being afraid of the smoke detector because of it. (This could potentially even become an object lesson on the subject of forgiveness.)

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The problem is that it startled, scared, and hurt him, and he worries that it will do so again without warning. Smoke detectors are painful to hear nearby - they are just below the range of hearing damage precisely so they will alert the occupants of a problem.

He's worried it will go off again, and, honestly, if you haven't found the cause you should be worried too. So you need to resolve the problem, and teach him what to do when it does make noise.

If it were me and my kids, I'd do the following:

  • Say "It should only make noise if there's an emergency. Since it made noise without an emergency, it needs to be replaced with a better one that doesn't make noise unless there's an emergency. Do you want to go to the store and help me buy one?"
  • Go to the store, and select two or three you are fine with (the new dual ionization + photoelectric ones will give fewer false alarms), and then let your child choose. Make sure they look visibly different from the ones you currently have.
  • Remove the old ones, put in the new ones.
  • Test them (have him cover his ears) so he knows you can cause it to make noise, and then tell him that the new ones won't make noise unless he needs to leave the house.
  • Practice leaving the house. "If these make noise, don't hide under a blanket - run out of the house!"

Probably the best thing you can do is give him an action to perform when it happens again, and practice that using the testing button on the alarm. That way he will have a sense of control over his environment - he knows if it goes off he isn't to hide under covers or cover his ears, he's to run outside immediately.

That might be enough. Otherwise, patience, and over weeks without the noise he will probably settle back down and ignore them.

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    if you haven't found the cause you should be worried too — That's actually a pretty good point. If it's going off for no apparent reason, it is possible it will fail to go off when there is a reason. – Acire Sep 25 '15 at 22:07
  • But you can't guarantee that the new smoke detector won't malfunction and give another false positive, which might erode trust. – March Ho Sep 26 '15 at 4:59
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    @Erica: Given how the two prevalent types of smoke detectors work, I do not see any reason to assume that a smoke detector prone to false positives is more prone to false negatives. It’s like worrying that your car’s motor may break down because its radio is broken. In particular, as with most detectors in real situations, avoiding false negatives is bound to lead to some false positives. Thus, I am not worried anymore about this smoke detector failing to detect an actual fire than with a brand-new smoke detector. – Wrzlprmft Sep 26 '15 at 7:50
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    @MarchHo there are no guarantees, however a dual detection smoke detector will almost certainly have a lower false alarm rate than a single detection, so this may, in fact, resolve the problem if it is a bad detector, as well as if it was due to a single event such as a bug as the OP suggests. But if they haven't found the actual reason, then replacing the detector isn't a bad choice, and may alleviate his child's fears, so it might be a worthwhile choice. Detectors should be replaced every decade anyway. – Adam Davis Sep 26 '15 at 11:47
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    +1 for " Do you want to go to the store and help me buy one?" and "If these make noise, don't hide under a blanket - run out of the house!" – Ossum's Mom Oct 1 '15 at 19:52
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I wonder if you created a counter-narrative, a story about how the smoke detectors are the good guys and watch over us to keep us safe, and when they sense danger they yell really loud to make sure we wake up, and sometimes they make mistakes and scare us a bit, but it's because they are are trying really hard to help us - I wonder if a story like that could help him understand smoke detectors role?

And similar stories could be created for other inanimate objects as needed.

Also, on a practical note, maybe try covering the sound hole on a smoke detector with duct tape, to muffle it, and then demonstrate how it works. Kids can hear high frequency sounds better than adults - their hearing has not yet been degraded by loud sounds - so for them, smoke detector alarms may actually be kind of painful - so by muffling the sound, it might allow for easier incremental desensitization. And then of course remove the duct tape before putting the smoke alarm back in service.

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Children of this age, and a few years older, do tend to develop fears associated with specific objects or concepts, and those fears are often not rational. Since they are not rational fears, they often can't be reasoned away. Since you have tried rational explanations without success, it's likely that this is what's going on here. More explanations, however logical and convincing, are probably pointless, because they're not addressing the actual fear.

In some cases, you can use illogical approaches -- magical realism -- to deal with the underlying problem. For example, when my niece had a terror of witches, my sister hung out a sign that said "No Witches Allowed!", and my niece was able to sleep happily again. With one of our children, we used "Dream Catchers", cheap souvenirs we had picked up some time ago, hung on the door knob and explained that they would stop the scary thoughts. Parents famously look under children's beds to confirm that there are no monsters there. And so on. The specific solution will depend on your child, but some element of ritual and formality probably will help.

(I think it is important to treat the child and his fear respectfully, and not to mock it or call it silly, or simply ignore it. You can say that it's unnecessary, but at the same time take some steps to "deal" with it in a way that gives the child support and affirms that his feelings are worthwhile.)

Finally, these fears often disappear -- or are transferred to different objects -- as suddenly as they arose. Don't be surprised or frustrated if you find yourself developing new rituals every year or so for a few years.

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    My niece was terrified of the monster under the bed, so my sister got a Loch Ness souvenir monster, and kept it under the bed. So niece could say Goodnight Monster, and the Monster would peep out and say goodnight too... – RedSonja Sep 27 '15 at 9:19
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You say "that's not how we explain it to him". Why not? I certainly have done the same with my four year old and my two and a half year old.

D, smoke detectors are important for our safety, and it's so important that we accept the fact that they go off sometimes when they shouldn't and hurt our ears and make us annoyed. Because if the house catches on fire while we're asleep, we very much want the loud noisy thing to be loud and noisy and scary: because then we wake up!

These sorts of things are important to talk to your child very nearly as if they were an adult. Sure, you don't have to go into the science - but you can, if that's how your child works, it is how mine works to some extent. But the concept of "false positive" vs. "false negative" are entirely understandable by a child.


That said, the main problem here is one of the unknown. He doesn't know when it's going to go off, so it's constantly stressful. He could be like my son and have mild sensory issues (where loud noises stress him more than most children); or he may just have a reasonable concern that a loud noise will be stressful. Either way, this is sort of like a Doom hanging over you (if you watch How I Met Your Mother, the Slap is a great example of this). It's far more stressful to anticipate unknown things than to experience them.

One solution is to tolerize - ie, what Stephie suggested. Give him control over the fire alarm. Let it be something fun. This worked with my son and hand air dryers - he found them incredibly frightening as a younger child (to the point that bathroom trips involved constant cringing in museums and similar), but worked through it by having control: pushing the button himself.

Another solution is to give him solutions that he has control over. Give him a set of earmuffs or some ear plugs. Tell him that if it does go off, just remember where these are and put them on. Practice drills with it. (That's a good idea anyway, of course, for fire safety.)

Finally, you can make them less scary by making them more well known. Instead of hoping he doesn't notice a smoke alarm when you walk in a room, point it out to him. Make it a game. "Let's find the smoke detector." This gives him control and gives him more opportunities in a planned way to work out his issues. You can go even further - open it up, show him the pieces and how they work, or perhaps more easily find a Youtube video of a smoke detector tear-down.

  • You say "that's not how we explain it to him". Why not? – I did not say that we did not explain it to him; I only said that we did not explain it to him using abstract concepts such as probability and false alerts as I did when summarising our approaches. – Wrzlprmft Sep 25 '15 at 17:41
  • Sure, and I'm saying you should. Explaining why false positives are way better than false negatives is entirely appropriate in this case. – Joe Sep 25 '15 at 17:42
  • I'm not sure I like the idea of a child running for ear muffs when a fire alarm goes off, I prefer said child running for safety, outside. – Stephie Sep 25 '15 at 22:42
  • Upvoted for "He doesn't know when it's going to go off, so it's constantly stressful." I dread the fire alarm tests at my work, because we know they're going to go off sometime during the day, but not WHEN. And when they do, it's a terrifying shrieking buzz that is guaranteed to cure constipation. – barbecue Sep 26 '15 at 15:11
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I'd suggest creating a social story either using flash cards or a comic strip to try and help him understand.

I teach autistic teenagers and we use this kind of thing to teach them about different situations they might have experienced or experience in the future to help them cope and understand. They're usually quite serious in tone but there's nothing to stop you making it a fun activity with him and creating a story with a cartoon smoke detector as the hero.

E.g: He might be a bit too eager to help people and go off without warning so people don't like him but then there's real smoke (I'd suggest from cooking or someone leaving a cigarette lit - you don't want to instill the idea of waking up to a massive house fire!) and the alarm comes to the rescue...

  • Having a further think about this, I've done social stories with 2 kids who were petrified of fire alarms in school (because they hate the noise and fact that means that they're going to need to go out with a massive crowd of people) and it really does help them think through what will happen and how they can minimise the stress much better than just sitting trying to explain to them what a fire alarm is and why we need them. – Jim Sep 26 '15 at 11:12
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I can empathise with this scenario, my advice would be, like some others have suggested, just to give it time. On holiday when my son was of a similar age, a smoke alarm went off in the bedroom while he was sleeping, it woke him and expectedly startled and scared him. We could not get it off, and he was so upset and scared at the time. As a highly sensitive child it was the worst thing that could of happened to him. He has always been acutely aware and fearful of loud noise, tannoys in supermarkets, motorbikes going past, and even the school bell. It affected him deeply and he would be very on edge with any situations involving loud noise. The only thing you can do as a parent is support him in whatever environment he is in or becomes fearful in, I don't think that there is a solution that can be offered up here, as your child is unique and will respond in own way and time. Talk about it like you are, be honest and don't avoid it but also don't make a big thing of it. Prepare to be very patient and hopefully in time your son will move on and recover from it. It happened to my son and I honestly thought he would be scarred for life, but he recovered well in under a year and can now tolerate loud noises. Each child as you know, is very different but I'm sure he will be okay in time, and hope you take encouragement from my experience. Good luck.

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I know this doesn't address the question of allaying fears of loud noises, but I think he will grow out of that. If he has already seen one go off inadvertently, it would be hard not to lie in bed, staring at it and worrying that it will go off, and have poor sleep patterns.


The smoke detectors in the sleeping rooms are required per some regulation from the fire insurance ...

Well, I'm a lot older than three, and I would be pretty pissed off if a smoke detector went off over my head. I suggest a workable compromise. Tell him: If it goes off over his head for no reason it will be replaced. However I note that his detector did not in fact sound, so he is transferring the problem with your faulty detector to speculate that his might fail as well. This is not totally an unreasonable assumption.

As the other excellent answers have suggested, pointing out that "things go wrong sometimes" is not a bad way of managing the situation. However we don't have to put up with faulty devices in the house. My suggestion of offering to replace the faulty detector (if it happens again) should go a long way to relieving the anxiety. You can say "the bad detector is gone now".

Also pointing out their usefulness (without making it sound like the house will burn down in the next few months) might help.


I think it is important to treat the child and his fear respectfully, and not to mock it or call it silly ...

This is a good point. As I said, I would be annoyed too at the situation. You could say that "we obviously got a dud smoke detector", and if it happens to you (the parent) again, you will replace your detector. As indeed you may want to anyway. That aligns you and your son on the side of fighting the evil smoke detector.

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    There also is a smoke detector in the hallway; I just did not mention it as it was not relevant to the problem. The smoke detectors in the sleeping rooms are required per some regulation from the fire insurance (probably for those people who smoke in bed and do other very stupid stuff). Anyway, as I wrote, I do not want dismantle the detector. – Wrzlprmft Sep 27 '15 at 9:48
  • See updated answer. – Nick Gammon Sep 27 '15 at 10:11
  • Hi and welcome. We try to focus on giving a helpful answer to the OP's question(s). If you could edit out the content which is unnecessary (for example, where to install smoke alarms), that would focus attention on the helpful advice. A look at the site tour and the help center will provide further guidance on how to use this site. – anongoodnurse Sep 27 '15 at 19:09
  • As you wish. If there was a wasp nest in the room, I think relocating it would be a useful solution, and not merely focussing on the boy's fear of wasps, but I will try to stay on topic next time. – Nick Gammon Sep 27 '15 at 21:19
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Smoke detectors are, in fact, dangerous - I have tinnitus because of a fire alarm which was far too powerful for the location it was installed in. In this part of the world smoke alarms installed by private landlords tend to be wired together so that if one goes off, they all do. This one was so loud that we couldn't speak to each other.

In this instance the child's instincts are correct - only his response is irrational, so you need to help him form his understanding of the principle of an alarm, and give him a better way of dealing with it - it will no longer be frightening if it is understood.

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He probably doesn't fear the detectors themself, but the noise they make. Of course, it hurts in the ears and if you're about to fall asleep, you get shocket even as matured person.

Smoke detectors reveal a life threading danger, even one you might not see.
You canno't see, smell or taste carbon monoxid. You won't feel that it's there, if you're sleeping. In the end, it doesn't matter if your detectors detect carbon monoxid. Some do, some don't, issue keeps the same. i'd proceed as if they do, even if they don't.

Tell him, that there are some kinds of smoke (or air) (if he doesn't understand the concept of gas, yet.) which can kill you and you cannot notice on your own.

Do not teach him that this sound is harmless!
It really is not! He has to understand that this alarm means a big danger. Teach him how to react on that alarm, not to ignore it.

In your situation, I'd play a fire drill so he knows how to react to it. Children are just normal people that don't know as much as we do.
People tend to have less fear of things, when they know how to react to them.

I still remember my first fire drill in elementary school. I was frightened a lot. The second and third where better and somewhen it wasn't much of a thrill anymore. I knew how to react, reacted that way and that was it. Nothing special.

  • Smoke detectors don't detect CO because smoke (being very hot) rises to the ceiling, whereas CO (being heavier than air) falls. A carbon monoxide detector is usually installed at ground level. – forest Apr 24 at 8:21
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Many times kids appreciate technical answers, even if they do not understand them completely. Depends if you are technically inclined yourself, but it may be interesting to take one apart (batteries removed). It is better if you already know how it works and describe the different parts. Try together to find explanations as to why it went off whereas there was no fire. Ask him for hypotheses, discard those involving evil and such, and treat with consideration those more technical, even if completely unrealistic. Conclude that this model was crap, throw it away and buy a supposedly better one.

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Give him power over it. Tell him to tell it, "Bad smoke detector! Don't you make a false alarm again! If you do that again I'm going to replace you!" Tell him he gets to decide when to replace it, either now because it already made a false alarm and scared him, or next time it does so. (Tell him it's okay to give people second chances.) Tell him that's true of all the smoke detectors in the house: that they have to be afraid of him if they are faulty.

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Do your smoke alarms have blinking leds? If so, turn them off/paint them black and tell your child that you have turned them off completely.

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    As written in the question, “I prefer answers that do not involve lying or dismantling the smoke detectors as I want to support him dealing with his fears not just remove the symptoms.” – Wrzlprmft Sep 29 '15 at 7:08
  • I know for sure that the state of unexplained fear in adults can not be countered by logical explanations. The consciousness of the subject is working towards finding the reason to fear. I know nothing of toddlers but I believe they are not more reasonable than adults. – Barafu Albino Sep 29 '15 at 7:26
  • I mean, it is better to first remove the fear, than start with removing its reason, otherwise all explanations will be converted into the more reasons for fear. – Barafu Albino Sep 29 '15 at 7:27
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    The difference between irrational fears in toddlers and adults is that the toddler’s fear arises from lack of understanding and false conclusions, while an adult usually knows that their fear is irrational. Thus the toddler’s fear may indeed be cured by reasoning and in fact I have cured several fears this way, when reasoning was easier. Toddler’s fears usually aren’t phobias (the psychic disorder). – Wrzlprmft Sep 29 '15 at 8:02

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