Scary Cats in Scary Hats: How to Tame Your Toddler's Fears

“Courage is fear holding on a minute longer.” - George S. Patton

This blog is dedicated to GraceLikeRain, mother of four, who recently wrote in about her children’s fears. I couldn’t stop thinking about her courage - while her husband is in Afghanistan, she is raising their family. Four children under six years old!

My son was afraid of hats. It had something to do with The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss. (He is a little sinister, come to think of it.) It didn’t matter what kind of hat - any time I tried to put one on him, it was as if a monster were about to sit on Alessio’s head. That mysterious Cat and his striped top-hat had also triggered other anxieties in my toddler: bicycles and umbrellas, to name a few. Yet The Cat in the Hat is still one of Alessio’s favorite books.

Fear. We all have it. It's a fact of human nature. A survival tool meant for our own good. Fight or flight. Knowing when to stand strong and when to run.

Our children experience all the emotions we do, both negative and positive, yet have no point of reference to know that fears pass and can even be mastered.

"Have no fear," the Cat keeps repeating through the story, while at the same time wreaking havoc with every step. Child psychologists have long understood the connection between fairytales and scary stories that comfort children by introducing an element of fear in a safe environment. It allows the child to safely explore difficult emotions.

Even the simple game of peek-a-boo is important to child development, containing both stimulation and an element of suspense. My 6-month-old baby, Sienna, loves this game. When I pop out from behind the blanket, she is both delighted and a little afraid. The game allows her to safely explore these sensations in a controlled way.

With older children, parents have the advantage of being able to gently talk about what is making their child afraid. Research shows that children who can discuss uncomfortable emotions with their parents grow up to be healthier adults.

My mother came to visit and asked a very rational question: Why support an irrational fear of hats? Fire, sure. Pain, yes. But hats?

My husband, Adriano, and I had been trying our own brand of hat-fear home-therapy using “Singing in the Rain,” a YouTube clip of Gene Kelly dancing defiantly in the rain, with umbrella and hat as his props. Alessio loves this clip. He would tap dance along, twirling his orange plastic bat instead of the dreaded umbrella. Kelly tosses his fedora into the air, does every kind of magic with that hat, but as far as Alessio was concerned, the hat was still a monster.

My mom got the idea to take Alessio’s hats and put them on his stuffed animals. She showed him that the animals were happy and really liked the hats. He was skeptical, but intrigued. Still, he would not touch the hats. The final saving grace was Adriano joking around, dancing with Alessio and pretending he was Gene Kelly, tossing the hat high into the air and catching it on his head. Then I put on the hat and that was it. Alessio has been a hat man ever since.

Teach your children not to be afraid of how they feel. Scary. Mad. Hurt. These are important words for your child to know. Talk to them about their fears, tell them, “It’s okay to feel this way. But here’s how we can make it better.” Be sensitive, reassuring and supportive. Always listen. Never push. Work together to seek solutions for overcoming fear.

GraceLikeRain, you are an inspiration to me and I aspire to be as courageous and graceful as you. Over 700,000 children across the U.S. have a parent who is deployed. Hats off (or on!) to Grace and all our military families.