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I have a three and a half year old boy. We have been going to this theme park for years, he has gone on all of the rides which are age appropriate since a little more than one without any sign of fear. Today he has been completely different. He won't do anything, he breaks down into uncontrollable screaming when we get close. He won't even walk by the adult rides, he says they are "too scary". He doesn't want to watch the Sesame Street characters. Is this the normal way fear develops in children, or is it possibly a sensory issue? (There were children yelling excitedly, maybe too much stimulation?)

And, what should I do or not do?

Edit

We were able to distract him in line by keeping him busy, and he went on some of the ride he was on last year. Afterwards we asked him if they were scary and he said "no". We didn't push the issue with the rides he has never been on before, because we didn't know how he would react. When approaching the adult ride (one in particular) we would wait till it stopped before walking past. On many occasions he asked for his headphones (which we provided). It was a jarring experience for us because his reaction was so different to when he was younger, in fact he has done the same things at a younger age with absolutely no sign of fear, and we were scared of pushing him too hard and introducing significant stress.

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Developing a fear of things is a part of normal childhood development (after all being frightened of somethings is a useful skill). Its common to see this develop around the age of three 1,2,3 as this is the age at which their capacity for imagination develops. Thus they become capable of imagining themselves in situations and what might happen but not yet old enough to distinguish between reality and their imagination. They are also developing powerful emotions that they are not yet fully in control of, and things they are not in control of are often what children fear 4.

I have experienced something similar with my own daughter, as she grew into this age she became more fearful of certain things in the playground that she had not been before. In part I attribute this to not having known to be frightened of it before (fear is, to some extent, a learned reaction) but now knew she might hurt herself in some ways and had the capacity to imagine this happening. There was a day when she returned from the park and started telling me what first seemed like a wholly convincing story about a child who had fallen off the slide and had to be taken away in an ambulance. She supplied my details that made it seem credible at first but it became less so as she insisted that the reason the ambulance was necessary was that the child has swallowed all the barks chips in the playground so they had to shut it down. Naturally I checked with my wife and nothing had happened though they had seen an ambulance near the park a couple of weeks earlier. Seen as an imaginative story it does make sense from a child perspective and it did help me learn to understand things from her viewpoint.

The good news is, these fears did not persist long given encouragement and the opportunity to overcome them along with validation of the emotion itself (acknowledging the feelings as real while showing that I was not afraid so as to demonstrate they were not the only ones to have in the situation).

While you should keep an eye out for persistent fear and anxiety developing 5, it doesn't seem like this is the case here and how you handled it was in line with expert recommendations 3. It also seems to have worked so I would have no worries. Validate you child's fear but provide plenty of encouragement and opportunity to overcome them and these should work themselves out.

  1. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-04-11/lifestyle/sns-201204101630--tms--premhnstr--k-j20120411apr11_1_fear-dark-night-scary-thoughts
  2. http://cpancf.com/articles_files/COMMON_CHILDHOOD_FEARS.asp
  3. https://web.archive.org/web/20160429230416/http://www.child-central.com/Childhood-Fear.html
  4. http://www.cyh.com/HealthTopics/HealthTopicDetails.aspx?p=114&np=141&id=1612#5
  5. http://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/persistent-fear-and-anxiety-can-affect-young-childrens-learning-and-development/
  • Very helpful :) I'm commenting to point out that the link 3 - child-central etc.. now points to some site about children reading, and not to fear handling. – Ciacciu Oct 24 '16 at 12:38
  • link has been replaced by archived version, thanks for pointing this out. – tallus Nov 11 '16 at 16:51
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Children's emotions at that age change a lot and often. This is completely normal. I see this in my own children. There was a time when he was scared of taking a bath. Toddlers are learning at tremendous pace and they are taking in all experiences, making relations in their mind along the way. If you can distract him that would be fine, but if he is still scared, it's ok for him not to take the ride, or take something that he likes.

At younger age, they did not understand as much as they do now. They did not know what might be dangerous for them, whereas they start to recognise that as they grow older.

I should also add that children's mood is also very much affected by whether they are tired or hungry, just like us grown-ups.

See if he responds differently the next time you are there.

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