Fear Not, Little One: How My Daughter Developing Fears Changed the Way I Parent

I was afraid of many things as a child. From thunder and lightning to E.T. and our neighbor’s dog, I always found something to freak out about. I was leery of department stores and getting lost in their maze-like clothing racks. I was so scared of the board game Operation that I had to wear earmuffs to mask the constant buzzing sound when my older sister played with her friends. I couldn’t even look at my father’s heavy-duty liquid soap bottle because the giant greasy hands on it were totally terrifying to me.

This summer, my daughter turned 2 years old and, as all the parenting literature promised, she started to develop some fears herself. Despite my own experience with this, I felt helpless and perplexed. Rather than a gradual introduction to shock and fright, we’ve been dealing with the sudden appearance of fears, some from seemingly nowhere. My once-fearless toddler started clinging to me if a dad entered the playground (which is full of mostly moms and female nannies), and crying if strangers looked at her for too long in the grocery store. The “stranger danger” was short lived, but she still gets very irritable when unfamiliar men are around. 

My daughter still seemed fairly intrepid this summer, swimming (with assistance from her floaties!) in the Hudson River or socializing with a new playgroup—until the smoke alarm in her bedroom went off three times in one evening. From then on, bedtime, naptime, and anything within one hour of these sacred rituals became riddled with anxiety triggers. It would start with some clinginess during her pre-bed meal, then tears while I was cleaning up, which led to protests at going upstairs and reading books, then screaming “No beep beep!” until it erupted into a full-blown meltdown on her bedroom floor. It was impossible to stop and heartbreaking to witness.

My brave little girl was completely distraught, and I felt powerless to comfort her. So I learned a slightly different kind of parenting, with plenty of listening and less talking, and more creative problem-solving than usual. I soon realized that my daughter desperately wanted to talk about the “beep beep,” so I gave her every opportunity to repeat the story of what happened that night. “Beep beep. Daddy fixed it. We go outside,” she would say over and over again, recounting how the alarm blared, my husband shut it off, and then we went outside to call our local fire department just to make sure there wasn’t any carbon monoxide setting off the alarm. She wanted to put Elmo stickers on the alarm, so I found our tallest stool and managed to stick a few around its perimeter on her bedroom ceiling.

Then I started pointing out all the happy beeps that we hear throughout the day. The microwave, which means her breakfast sausage is ready! My phone alarm, which means it’s time to get ready for preschool! Or the “beep beep” of her grandmother’s car just parked in our driveway, which always means a fun, lollipop-fueled visit. We even tried an at-home version of art therapy, drawing her bedroom together, her crib surrounded by books and stuffed animals, and the all-important “beep beep” at the top right-hand corner, with Elmo stickers nearby, of course.

Our journey from fearless to fearful and back again just goes to show that I’ll probably never parent the same exact kid or in the same exact ways two years in a row, and that’s a good thing because it helps both me and my daughter grow. The first year was all about patience (breast-feeding, sleep regressions, and teething, for starters), but the second year has been about becoming more flexible and nimble, always ready to meet my child wherever she needs me.

A few weeks ago, my daughter’s bedtime routine went back to normal. She stopped talking about the “beep beep” entirely. It fell off her list of hot topics, which currently includes pigs, birthdays (dates, cakes, songs, presents, all of it), and the names of all her friends’ baby brothers and sisters. But now, instead of screaming out from her crib in fear, she’s shouting out in anger. “Put my arm under the blankie! Put my arm under!” she demands with increasing frustration.

It may be a long, cold winter. But at least she’s not afraid of Jack Frost—yet.


What Potty Training My Child Taught Me

Reflections of a (Not So) ‘Very Cool Dad’