Psychologists generally consider childhood fears of both the real and fantastical world as normal. These fears are usually prompted by frightening stories or from watching an unsettling movie.
In most cases, children outgrow these fears. However, this may also be the root of anxiety disorders.
Vivid childhood imaginations
Children have such vivid imaginations that even glimpses of ‘scary’ images may leave a lasting impression in the innocent mind of a young person. The world may seem bigger than they thought, confusing and intimidating. Younger children may fear dark places, supernatural creatures or even masks. This is why taming these fears is essential for their overall wellbeing.
A 2009 study published in the November/December issue of the journal Child Development, suggests effective ways for parents to soothe their children’s fears of real and imaginary creatures. The study was conducted by the University of California, Davis.
Investigators of the study looked at a sample of almost fifty children aged four, five and seven. The study aimed to establish coping mechanisms that children may use to mitigate their fears.
The study suggests that telling children above seven years old that scary imaginary creatures aren’t real, may help soothe their woes. For the even younger ones, thinking positive thoughts may alleviate their fears of imaginary creatures such as ghosts.
As part of the research, the children listened to stories which included visuals. In each story, the child protagonist was faced with either a real or imaginary creature. The children from the study were asked to give reasons why the child might be scared — as they evaluated the intensity of the characters fear. They were also asked to offer advice to the child in the story, on ways to overcome their fear.
Researchers found that when encountered with real creatures such as snakes, the children usually recommended a call to action. Most boys suggested fighting, while most girls suggested that it was best to keep away from the creature.
When it came to imaginary creatures for the children between the ages of four and seven, researchers found that the children generally understood that a person’s thoughts and beliefs either instigate or ease fear.
Preschoolers on the other hand, would pretend that the imaginary creature was harmless and rather friendly.
From this, researchers concluded that when preschoolers think positive thoughts regarding the creature, they became less fearful.
Joanne Cantor, who at the time was a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said that previous studies suggest that three and four-year-olds can’t use reasoning to make themselves feel better. This means that they may not be able to accept the “it’s not real” explanation. This is where the parents come in.
Acknowledging the fear
Authors of the study say that rather than parents rejecting their preschooler’s belief that an imaginary creature is present, or dismissing it as not real, parents should rather say that the creature is friendly and “wants to play.”
Later, when the child is no longer scared of the imaginary being, parents can tell their children that the scary creature “was not real.”
In fact, psychologists and authors of this study, Liat Syfan and Kristin Hansen Lagattuta both have children of their own and have tried these strategies. They said that they have also explained to their children, when they were younger, that the monster was “nice.” This they say worked well.
“It’s not suppressing the negative thoughts. It’s sort of staying in it and reframing it a little bit more precisely,” said Lagattuta. In the case of older children, researchers found that when these children focused on reality, by reminding themselves that the “dragons aren’t real”, they would overcome their nervousness.
According to the authors of the study, these findings should help parents find age appropriate strategies that will correlate with their child’s reasoning.
It is important that parents remain sensitive to their children’s general fears of real and imaginary creatures.
Experts also suggest that when watching ‘scary’ movies, parents should encourage discussion about the filmmaking process with children. This they say will help justify the “it’s not real” explanation. Since films use special effects, dissecting what this entails, helps to make the scenes a whole lot less scary for children.
Fighting the monsters: 6 great tips for parents
- Do not ignore the fear. The most important part is that you do not disregard your child’s fears or ridicule them. Being understanding will reassure your child that he is not trapped alone in his fears.
- Talk about the fear. During the day, discussing the fear with your child will prepare him for night time anxieties. This includes asking why he is scared, and what will help to make him less frightened.
- Avoid scary movies or stories. Images from such movies will conjure up the fear and heighten the nervousness. In the case of movies, explaining the special effects process or even who the real actors are (including their role in ‘less scary’ films) will show your child the reality of the movie.
- Leaving the bedroom door open and having a nightlight. Leaving the door open will help your child not feel enclosed, especially if the lights are off. A nightlight is a great alternative if your child is scared of the dark.
- “Monster Spray.” Imaginary spray is an effective way to fight your child’s fear of imaginary creatures. Before bedtime or when the ‘creature’ is present, assure your child that the spray will make him disappear. You can also think of other possible tools and weapons that can be used. This should make him more confident when it comes to getting rid of creatures.
- “Friendly Monster.” For pre-schoolers, this may be effective. Reassure them that the monster only wants to play with them and be friends, before explaining that it is not a real monster.
So, next time your three year old, screams, “mommy there is a monster under my bed”, hand him his monster spray, which will make the monster disappear.