The things that keep kids (and parents) up at night.
Kids are scared of things. Lots of things. And who can blame them?
They’re smaller than normal people, they don’t have a 401K yet, and, as far as they know, those Chucky movies might be based on a true story.
Like the whole clown fear — what started that? Sure, clowns seem all sinister now (Pennywise in Stephen King’s IT deserves some major credit), but what happened that transformed clowns from being popular birthday party entertainment to being seen as creatures of pure evil that try to lure kids into the woods? What made children turn on clowns so completely over the past few decades?
As a parent, I can tell you that childhood fears don’t always make sense. Sure, there are some standard ones that are hard to argue — spiders, snakes, and so on — but, in my experience, every kid has a few weirdo outlier night terrors that really speak to their own particular brand of nervousness and worry.
If you’re interested to know what the kids are afraid of these days — or if you’re a parent who wants to know that your kid isn’t alone in their night-time worries — here are some of my daughter’s most potent (and memorable) childhood fears, all ranked from least to most severe.
1. CHILDHOOD FEAR: Self-flushing toilets
IT BEGAN: Age 3
STILL AROUND?: Thankfully no.
WHAT’S SO SCARY: If my daughter could’ve written a horror movie while she was in preschool, it would’ve been all about self-flushing toilets. Here’s what I know as a parent — kids find the idea of a robot flushing for them TERRIFYING.
It’s loud, it’s startling, and they want to make up their own mind when they’re done. If you’ve ever taken a kid into a public bathroom and the sensor caused the toilet to flush while they were still sitting on it, well, you’ll never forget screams like that. This was my daughter’s greatest fear for a long period of time, but, fortunately, this is one fear that she eventually grew out of, hence why it appears at the top of this list.
CHILDHOOD FEAR RANKING: At age 3 — 10/10. Now — 0/10.
2. CHILDHOOD FEAR: Throwing up
IT BEGAN: Kindergarten
STILL AROUND?: Comes and goes.
WHAT’S SO SCARY: No one actually likes throwing up, but anxious kids have a particularly weird relationship with the concept of vomiting. If the idea of vomit somehow crosses their mind, they can worry SO much about it that they physically make themselves throw up. Which is kind of astonishing. Those kids (my daughter included) can actually manifest one of her worst fears, if they think about it enough. It’s kind of remarkable. And gross. And messy.
CHILDHOOD FEAR RANKING: 4/10
3. CHILDHOOD FEAR: Terrorism
IT BEGAN: Fourth grade.
STILL AROUND?: Yeah, thanks a lot, 24 hour news cycle.
WHAT’S SO SCARY: Terrorism is terrifying, frankly, especially to a kid. And things get even more sinister when kids start picking up their news from the school playground, hearing half-digested news reports that some other kid’s brother SWEARS he read on the internet last night.
My daughter starting asking us about ISIS and the likelihood of us dying from a terrorist act last year, and you can tell that she’s not 100% satisfied with our answers. It’s hard for a kid to understand “Hey, we live in a boring suburb in the Western world. Your odds of avoiding terrorism are GOOD, compared to most of the rest of the world.”
But it’s also hard not to understand why a kid would be afraid of an extremist group that seemingly takes so much pleasure in causing so much pain. They scare me too.
CHILDHOOD FEAR RANKING: 6/10
4. CHILDHOOD FEAR: Tornadoes
IT BEGAN: First grade
STILL AROUND?: Oh yeah.
WHAT’S SO SCARY: Are tornados scarier than ISIS? If you ask my kid, YES. We live in the Midwest, so tornadoes are a possibility in the region. But we also live by a major city that has almost never experienced a full-fledged Helen Hunt-style Twister. Despite all that, starting in first grade, my daughter started asking us “Is there going to be a tornado today?” every day of the year. (These questions went away for a while, but have started resurfacing lately.)
So, why are tornadoes such a potent fear for my kid? Probably because tornadoes are violent, random, and unpredictable, AND, for those reasons, elementary school libraries are FULL of books about them. (Thanks a lot for all the sleepless nights, library!) So, even though they’re unlikely, kids can’t stop thinking about them.
CHILDHOOD FEAR RANKING: 7/10
5. CHILDHOOD FEAR: Bees
IT BEGAN: Kindergarten
STILL AROUND?: Unfortunately, yes.
WHAT’S SO SCARY: I don’t get this one. I know bees are annoying and no one likes to get stung, but, for years, whenever my daughter would see a bee, she’d react like she just saw Freddy Kruger riding The Babadook. “It’s just a pinch,” I’d tell her, while talking about the worst case sting scenario, but, again and again, we’d go to a picnic or a cider mill and, quickly thereafter, she’d been eating her food in the car due to “the bees.”
If there was an exposure therapy clinic where you could take your kid to get stung by a bee, so they’d finally stop worrying about it, I would seriously consider it.
CHILDHOOD FEAR RANKING: 8/10
6. CHILDHOOD FEAR: Death
IT BEGAN: Age 3
STILL AROUND?: To quote Severus Snape, “ALWAYS.”
WHAT’S SO SCARY: Well, everything about it, really. But the unique thing about this fear is — I don’t really remember when I first realized that everyone died as a kid. However, I was there when my daughter came to that realization and it was horrifying. It started as a normal introspective bedtime discussion, which went south with the question “Are you going to die one day?” and went completely off-the-rails with “Wait, am I going to die too?!”
Since that night, death has been a fairly common topic of conversation in our house. Fortunately, it’s not a debilitating fear. She still gets out of bed every morning, but it’s always there in the background, looking for a moment to worm its way back into her anxious mind. So, in case you didn’t already know, death sucks.
CHILDHOOD FEAR RANKING: 10/10
Do these represent ALL of my daughter’s childhood fears?
Hell no. I didn’t even get into “robbers,” thunder, or commercials for horror movies. But these are some of the biggest and baddest ones, and they give you an idea of the variety of anxieties that kids develop when they’re younger.
My big takeaway as a parent is that it can be hard to remember why certain things seem so frightening to children. I can’t really understand why tornadoes take up so much of my daughter’s everyday brain-space, but it does seem clear that, to her, big loud agents of chaos make her feel unsafe and vulnerable.
My job is to just reassure her, make her feel secure and loved, and avoid self-flushing toilets whenever possible. Because, honestly, having someone else decide when we’re done on the potty is a scary concept, even for adults.