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When Fear Looks Like Anger

kids' fearsWhen children are afraid of something, adults often reassure them. Many kids are afraid of the dark or of monsters under the bed. This fear usually starts sometime around preschool and is a great way to delay bedtime or to keep a loved one hovering around the bedside.

Many millions of parents, with good intentions, have said to their scared kids, “Don’t worry, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Most scared kids willingly accept their parents’ reassurance. They might get an extra hug or a night light or one more bed time story. Gradually, they outgrow their fears. But some kids don’t easily grow out of their fears. They may just be prone to anxiety or sometimes they get too much attention from their caring parents.

These kids’ fears may get them extended routines of reassurance such as long rigid rituals that must be performed each night before they sleep. And many exhausted parents give up and extend an invitation to their frightened children to sleep with them in their beds.

And some of those kids whose parents have succumbed to their pleas eventually outgrow their fears as well. But, a small number of children get worse. Their fears grow. And as their weary parents lose patience, these kids feel intense anxiety. So, what began as a small bit of worry about separating from mom or dad at bed time becomes a monster of emotion. The child, once stretching out the bedtime routine with small requests, now screeches with desperation. Fear looks like anger and the child rages– now seemingly out of control.

These nighttime tantrums can turn a household upside down. Other family members can lose sleep, the child whose tantrums disrupt others in the family can be thought of as a trouble maker, and the sleep deprived family often becomes irritable and less productive at school or at work.

What can families do when fear morphs into anger? First, stop blaming each other. Parents and kids, for the most part, do the best they can do. Take a look at what happens when a fearful child throws a temper tantrum. Does the tantrum get the child what he or she wants? These patterns of behavior can be pretty tough to sort out and may require the help of a cognitive behavioral therapist.

However, the good news and the bottom line: These problems are pretty easy to solve if you get that help early. Do it now.

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When Fear Looks Like Anger

Laura L. Smith, Ph.D.

Laura L. Smith, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist who specializes in the assessment and treatment of adults and children with obsessive compulsive disorder, as well as personality disorders, depression, anxiety, ADHD, and learning disorders. Dr. Smith is a widely published author of articles and books to the profession and the public, including: Overcoming Anxiety For Dummies (2E), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder For Dummies, Seasonal Affective Disorder For Dummies, Anxiety and Depression Workbook For Dummies, Depression For Dummies, Hollow Kids: Recapturing the Soul of a Generation Lost to the Self-Esteem Myth, and Why Can’t I Be the Parent I Want to Be? Her website is:

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APA Reference
Smith, L. (2011). When Fear Looks Like Anger. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 8, 2019, from


Last updated: 6 Nov 2011
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