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Queston: My 3-year-old son has entered a stage where everything is "scary" - from cartoons he's seen a dozen times to new experiences. 

He's always been adventurous, so this is new. How do I react when I think he's genuinely afraid vs. when I think he's playing the "scary" card to get out of something he doesn't want to do? (He has said picking up his toys is "too scary.") 

Should my reaction be the same in both cases? Or is it okay to be more dismissive in the latter case? I don't want to minimize any real fears, but sometimes I'm not sure how to react.

A: This is a typical issue for preschoolers, and I feel for you. It can be confusing when a happy-go-lucky child begins to have seemingly irrational fears. It can also feel like manipulation, so let's see what may be going on in his mind. You don't mention it, but many preschoolers' fears come at bedtime, which I will also address.

Developmentally speaking, a 3-year-old is beginning to grasp that bad things can happen. Add to this stage any extra sensitivity, transitions or traumas, and you are facing some tough nighttime (and daytime) routines.

What to make of this? First, let's dispel the idea that he is "playing the 'scary' card" to get out of doing something. When we assume our young children are manipulating us, we enter a parenting path filled with resentment, suspicion and callousness. We will not give our loving best when we assume our child is a liar.

What feels like manipulation is that your child has learned (unconsciously) that when he screams out for you or says "no" to cleaning up, you make strong eye contact with him. You probably say something like, "Ralphie, everything is fine. You don't need to be scared." For your son, your words don't mean that much; what he wants is your eyes and physical presence. 

This instantly (and again unconsciously) relaxes him becauseyou are his primary attachment. There is no one who can bring safety like you. Hence, you have unknowingly created a cycle where he yells "no," you engage with reason, he gets what he wants (attention), and on it goes. Again, your son is not planning this; it is a behavioral cycle.

Am I suggesting that you create a routine that has you running to and from his room every night? Or that you abandon cleaning up? No, that is a quick train to exhaustion town, and it won't help him sleep or clean up.

Instead, work with what makes a 3-year-old feel safe: his senses and you. As a parent, you can create a bedtime routine that is full of sensory reminders. Anything with your smell, such as your pillowcase, can help your son relax.