Who knows where fears come from? The psychologist in me would say that fear is a learned response, but it seems like too simple of a solution. I used to think that when my toddler was very anxious, he might have inherited it from one of his parents. We both tend to be more controlling, type-A sorts of people and I worried that he might either be modeling our behavior or inherently predisposed to it.
Recently his fears have increased and I have been doing research and talking to friends. So far, it seems that the consensus is that this is a developmental stage all children go through. He is afraid of the common toddler complaints - loud noises, dark, dogs barking. None of his fears are out of the ordinary, or (according to the internets) very unusual. But we still don't know what to do about them. Nothing I say seems to reassure him when he becomes afraid short of holding him close. I have tried to dispel his fears by explaining there is nothing to be afraid of, but then find that some professionals feel that diminishes the importance of his feelings. I have tried to explain why things happen - why the doggies bark loud, why some rooms or areas are dark, why the contractors in the basement make so much noise, but to no avail. Each and every time he is confronted with a fearful event, he is just as startled.
Now the nightmares have started. Or, I think they have. Last night, he woke up twice - once at 1:30 am and again around 5. Each time he was whimpering and asking for mommy. The first time I went in to check on him, his legs and hands were cold as if he might have kicked off his blanket. But, there were no teeth cutting through, no stuffy nose, no fever, none of the other typical nighttime woes that result in my being summoned. So we sat in the chair and rocked for a bit and then he went back to sleep. (I, however, am never as lucky and proceeded to toss and turn for over an hour before finally drifting off). At 5am, he whimpered again, but this time barely long enough for me to check the clock before he quieted again and we all went back to sleep. When I got him up this morning, he was telling me about tigers and hitting mommy in the head and a whole host of other things I couldn't make much sense of - leading me to the conclusion that bad dreams may have been the cause of our night disruption.
As for a solution, I am clueless. I don't want to get in the habit of going in every night to rock as I know that that can become reinforcing very quickly. On the other hand, I don't want him to be afraid and all by himself. Because he is verbal, it's tempting to ask "are you scared?" during these episodes, but it's tough to know if the answer he gives is because he is afraid or because he is learning that scared=extra mommy snuggles. Part of me thinks I should just be glad for the bonus one-on-one time to rock him and cuddle since he never allows it to happen during waking hours. Which would all be well and good if I didn't need sleep to be a functioning caregiver the next day. This is also bringing up my own feelings of frustration - knowing that I can kiss away boo-boos and try to soothe his injured feelings, but there are going to continue to be things that he has to face and work through on his own and in his own way. All I can do is be there and hope it helps.