Persistent fear, stress, and anxiety can disrupt brain development in children, causing long-term physical and psychological delays. Fear triggers the stress response system of the brain. Long term stress response activity can disrupt the brain’s circuitry. This is especially detrimental during periods of rapid brain growth like those within the first 3 years of life. Persistent fear, stress, and anxiety in childhood can damage memory, stress regulation, and social/behavioral development. In children younger than 3, continual fear and anxiety can diminish the capacity to learn.
Infants begin to recognize fear between 6 and 12 months old. Children at this age may show anxiety when surrounded by strangers or display fear of a toy that is loud and unpredictable. As they grow, young children begin to exhibit unrealistic fears based within their imagination. These are all normal phases of growth. These fears disappear once children are able to interact socially, control inanimate objects, and differentiate between reality and imagination. Fear that is associated with threatening circumstances and maltreatment is significantly different in nature. It does not disappear.
National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2010). Persistent Fear and Anxiety Can Affect Young Children’s Learning and Development: Working Paper No. 9. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu