By the time your child is 3 years she will have developed a lively imagination as well as the ability to distinguish between the past, the present and the future. This new capacity to consider 'what-if' situations will provide her with a great deal of pleasure, but can also bring extra worries. 'What if there's a witch under the bed?'; 'When is mummy going to die?'; 'Will Suzie bite me at playgroup?' are the kinds of questions you can expect to hear regularly from your three, four or five-year-old.
Remember though, that your child may not tell you directly that theyare worried. If you suspect that your child is anxious about something that has happened at school, try not to bombard her with questions. Children hate being quizzed, and are more likely to put up barriers than if you let them communicate in their own time.
Listen for clues in your child's conversation, and be ready to respond gently. At bathtime, for instance, your five-year-old may suddenly announce that Sam was told off at school today. Ask what Sam did that was so naughty, and you may find your child explaining that Sam pinched her. She is trying to let you know that something unpleasant and frightening has happened, and she is worried that it may happen again tomorrow.
Alternatively, you might find that your child starts to talk to you about a situation she has seen in a book or on a video. 'It's not fair that the Fat Controller has told off Thomas the Tank Engine'.This may be your child's way of trying to tell you that she's worried about the way her teacher doesn't understand her own behaviour.
Responding to your child's fears
It's important to take your child's worries seriously, yet without adding to her distress. Laughing at her will make her feel bad about herself and won't provide any kind of reassurance. Yet looking too solemn when she tells you that there's a ghost in the cupboard may give the impression that you share her terror. Your child wants you to understand how frightened she feels, but she also wants to know that you are able to cope with anything unpleasant that the world has to offer.
It is more constructive to listen carefully while your child explains what her worries are, acknowledge her fear, and then suggest practical ways in which you can tackle the situation together. For instance, if your child is terrified of the dark, tell her that it's very usual for people to be a bit scared, and then provide her with a safe nightlight. If she's frightened of falling down the toilet, you might want to buy a special child seat that fits over the top of the lavatory.
Many of your child's fears will be irrational, but there is no point in telling her that; to her they are very real and not at all irrational. By all means explain that there can't be an alligator under her bed because they need water, but do accept that she still feels terrified. It might be that putting her mattress on the floor for a while may be the only way to make her feel calmer.
When talk isn't enough
Sometimes talking to your child about their fear just isn't enough. In this case, you may both find it helpful to play together. For instance, if your child is frightened of dogs, you might like to get her a toy dog and involve it in various games, but never try to force a particular game on a child. Alternatively you could take your child to see some puppies; after holding one they often become captivated and conquer all their fears.
Nevertheless, be ready to ask questions and make suggestions. For instance, if her toy dog is barking, ask her whether it is doing so because it is frightened.
If your child is showing signs of distress, you should make an appointment to see your GP or Health Visitor, who will suggest other coping strategies.
Generally, though, talking to your child and realizing why they are scared will help enormously. Your child will eventually stop having these seeming irrational thoughts, but until then, you should try to offer them as much support as you can.