Growing up is scary, and it's unusual for a child not to develop a fear or phobia during the first few years of his life.

Although babies come ready-made with an acute sense of fear, specific fears and phobias don't usually become apparent until around the age of one, when a developing awareness of the world coincides with an introduction to new situations. But it's important to remember that fear is a vital form of self-preservation – a child without fear is far more vulnerable than one with.

The golden rule

"The most important thing you can do to help your child overcome a fear or phobia is to acknowledge his feelings without reinforcing them," says child psychologist Rachel Pick. Dismissing his worry by saying "don't be silly" won't alleviate his feelings, so try saying: "The cat is quite harmless, but as you don't like it, we'll stay away". That way, you're both acknowledging and dispelling his fear, while still having respect for his feelings.

Overcoming fears

Try to incorporate whatever your child is frightened of into everyday life so it becomes less threatening. If your neighbour's cat is the problem, keep your distance at first, but point the cat out to your child regularly, holding him by the hand and smiling all the time. Try saying, "What a pretty cat. Look how good she's being!" each time you pass by.

Gradually get a little closer to the cat each time, until your child is happy for you to stroke her while he watches. He may eventually feel relaxed enough to stroke her on his own, but don't pressure him. The aim is for him to lose his fear of cats – not necessarily develop a love for them.

It's unusual for a child not to develop a fear or phobia during the first few years of his life.

When a fear becomes a phobia

Most fears will be quickly allayed as your child explores them and realises they are unfounded. If, for example, he is alarmed at the sight or sound of a vacuum cleaner, but is bold enough to touch it, he'll probably become curious rather than afraid. But if he continues to be frightened of an object that has proven to be safe, then he may have a phobia.

Overcoming phobias

"As with fears, acknowledge his feelings, but don't give them any justification. It's best not to actively avoid encountering the subject of his phobia – but don't force him to approach it, either," says Rachel. If he wants to be carried rather than walk past the cat next door, carry him – but make it clear that it's not because the cat is scary, it's because you know that he is afraid of it.

Try to work out if there is an underlying cause for your toddler's phobia. Has he watched something on TV that would give rise to it? Is it the result of other stresses in his life? Has he become more phobic since he joined daycare or playgroup? If so, talk to his carers about his need for extra reassurance and shorten his hours for a while, if that's possible.

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Top tips

  • Allow your child to regress a little. It may be that he has taken in too much of the world too soon, and is having trouble distinguishing real danger from imagined.
  • Be on hand with plenty of extra cuddles until he feels ready to assert his independence again.
  • If your toddler's phobia gets worse, or it starts to interfere with his life or the rest of the family, talk to your doctor about getting some professional help for your child.