Toddler fears: Vacuum cleaner phobia

My 18-month-old son is terrified of our vacuum cleaner. If he even sees it, he starts screaming. What could be causing this fear and how do we get him to adjust to this simple household chore?

Question:

Your son is experiencing a normal toddler fear. Babies often startle to loud sounds instinctually and your son probably has some of this leftover fear of loud noises. At 18 months, he is beginning to understand that he is pretty small in the world and that there are many things he doesn’t understand and can’t predict. Toddlers are often afraid of sirens, barking dogs, vacuum cleaners and thunder.

An amazing thing about young children’s fears is that they are often fascinated by the very things they are afraid of. Your son might talk about vacuum cleaners all the time or want to go see it, even though he is scared. Children are usually more able to cope with their fears if they can learn to predict when the scary thing will happen. Since your son is afraid of the vacuum cleaner, there are several things you can do to help him deal with his fearful feelings.

  • Let him explore the vacuum cleaner when it is not on. Try leaving the vacuum cleaner out and unplugged. See if your son wants to go over and explore it. You can either watch him or go with him and let him know it is safe for him to touch it, push it or pretend to vacuum with it. If he isn’t interested at first, leave it out for awhile. Sometimes it takes kids a little while to get up the courage to explore the things they are afraid of, but even having it out where he can see it will help him get used to it.
  • Talk about the vacuum cleaner. Tell you son what the vacuum cleaner does. Tell him that it makes the carpet clean. You can also talk to him about the loud noise it makes when you turn it on. You can explain that when you turn it off, the loud noise stops. You can let him practice flipping the switch when it is not plugged in. You and he could make the loud noise together: "The vacuum makes a loud vrummmm sound. Can you make that sound?" Later, he might want to flip the switch when it is plugged in.
  • Warn him before you turn it on. Unexpected noises are the scariest. If you let your know that you are about to turn the vacuum cleaner on and have someone sit with him or stand a distance away, he may be more comfortable with the noise. You could practice turning it on and off a few times, so that he can learn that the noise does go away and that you have the power to make it go off.
  • Get him a toy vacuum. One of the ways children can work through their fears is through pretending. You might want to get him a little toy vacuum that he can practice with.
  • You could make him a little book or make up a story about the vacuum cleaner. Often children can work through their fears by getting a little distance from them. You could take pictures of the vacuum cleaner, of him exploring it or of you using it. You can simply mount them on pieces of mat board, punch holes in the end and put them together with loose leaf rings or string. He will probably enjoy carrying around his little vacuum cleaner book. Or you could make up a night time story about a vacuum cleaner that was looking for a rug to clean. This enables him to become more familiar with vacuum cleaners at a safe distance.
  • It may take some time. Fears usually pass in their own time. They are often symbolic of a child’s sense of being small in a big world and so don’t always go away quickly by just practicing with the thing the child is afraid of at the moment. It is important to stay calm and supportive of the child and never to make fun of his fear.
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