Ask An Expert / Anxiety

My 4-year-old has strange fears. Should she see a psychiatrist?

Finding the right kind of help

Rachel Busman, PsyD
Rachel Busman, PsyD

Senior Clinical Psychologist, Anxiety Disorders Center; Director, Selective Mutism Service

Child Mind Institute

My daughter is four years old. She's very bright, talkative and friendly, but she has some strange fears that cause her to freak out and cry. I've narrowed it down to her being afraid of inanimate objects moving on their own, not controlled by a person. Examples are unoccupied swings swinging, tree branches swaying in the wind, water sloshing in a pool, rafts floating in a pool, balls bouncing away, curtains blowing, etc. These things all make her get very worked up and she starts throwing a tantrum and just wants to make it stop. She never really throws tantrums or cries (aside from getting hurt) other than this.I try to help her see that nothing bad can happen and that those are normal reactions (law of motion), but nothing I say can calm her down. She'd rather go home and not have to deal with it than stay and play with her friends at the park, pool etc. She's had these fears for about two years now. I'm wondering if I should have her see a psychiatrist or if this is something that will go away as she gets older.

I’m glad you’re reaching out because this is a really great question. While it’s a bit unusual, kids even at a very young age can ask some very “big” questions about things that they don’t fully understand.

The fact that your daughter is trying to avoid the things that upset her instead of playing with her friends or doing other fun things is concerning because it lets us know that her fears are having a negative impact in her life. And you say she’s had these fears for two years now, so we know these fears aren’t transient, which is also concerning.

With this in mind I do think it would be helpful to see a mental health professional. There are lots of different professionals out there, so you should consider what kind of person to consult. For example, while play therapy might seem like it makes sense because your daughter is a four-year-old and playing is what kids do, I’d actually recommend seeing someone who specializes in anxiety and uses behavioral approaches instead. This probably means a psychologist instead of a psychiatrist. Because your daughter is so young, you should expect that the psychologist will work closely with you. There are two main things you’ll want to learn from the psychologist—how to handle anxiety when it’s high in the moment, and how to approach helping your daughter do the things she needs to do in spite of her fears.

Finally, while it sounds like your daughter is highly intelligent and has some really sophisticated observations, when she’s feeling scared it might be hard for her to process complicated explanations about things. When children are feeling very emotional, sometimes less really is more. For example, you might want to explain that swings sometimes move when the wind is blowing and while that’s something she thinks about, it’s really important that she still go outside and do the things she’s supposed to do, even if she’s feeling scared or nervous.