I took my kids into Party City to find some Halloween costume accessories, where we were greeted at the door by an employee in a frightful mask, and to get to the costumes we had to walk down an aisle of gory (and motion-sensored) skeletons, ghouls and goblins, that cackled and screamed as we sped-walked past. We were all traumatized, and did I find my costume needs? Of course not.
My kids are scared of bugs, villains in Disney movies, germs, the neighbor's small dog, our basement at night, shots, and trucks driving down our street. The commercials for the new movie "Frankenweenie" illicit particularly horrible beckoning whines of terror from them, and to my dismay, we still haven't seen the movie "Brave" due to reports of a "giant scary bear."
While I am thankful that my children have incredible imaginations, I sometimes wonder if they are able to differentiate between reality and fantasy (like when they scream at a Halloween mask or think that the garbage truck is going to get them from a block away). As their parent, I need ways to help my kids deal with their fears, be them real or imaginary, and provide them age-appropriate coping strategies.
Why Are They So Afraid?
In the article, "Ages and Stages: How Children Manage Their Fears," author Susan A. Miller shares that preschoolers, four-year-olds in particular, have heightened imaginations, and therefore fears of both everyday things and fantastical characters in stories or on television can be magnified for them.
Miller also says that preschoolers pick up on behaviors from those around them, so if I have ever shrieked because of a spider (ok, maybe once or twice) or yelled at the kids to get out of the road..."or they'll be smushed like a pancake!" that she might learn those fears from me. Super.
In his paper, "Scaring the monster away: what children know about managing fears of real and imaginary creatures," author Liat Sayfan explains that as a child matures, he is better able to recall the source of his emotions. If a child sees a bee and becomes afraid, he can recall the reason why he's afraid is because he was once stung by a bee and it hurt, he saw his sibling get stung and watched him cry, or he saw his mom run away from the bee so it must be dangerous.
However, younger children are not so skilled at making the connection to why they are afraid of something. "[P]reschoolers, compared to older children and adults, are less able to specify the source of their memories or knowledge. Consequently, they may not remember whether something really happened or was just imagined." So, when awoken by a bad dream about a monster, our kids cannot remember why they are scared. Did something scary really happen or did they see it on TV? "Because they are confused..., young children are less likely, than older children and adults, to discount their fears by reminding themselves what truly occurred," explains Sayfan.
Coping Strategies for Young Children
Preschoolers spend a great deal of their playtime in pretend play with imaginary situations and friends. Because they are immersed in their imagination, their emotions are more heightened than a school-aged child or adult who experiences fantasy not through imagination, but through books and movies on a more temporary basis.
Don't let this surprise you, but preschoolers also do not have the greatest skills in regulating their behavior and emotions. Sayfan shares, "As children get older, they get better in regulating their involvement in the imaginary world, especially by recruiting their knowledge about the real world to discount their fears." So while I can talk with my older daughter about how she knows "Frankenweenie" is just make believe, and real dogs cannot be brought back to life (Side-note: I told myself the same exact thing after watching "Pet Cemetery"), my four-year-old just cannot get her logic to help her control her fear.
She instead must use other tactics to fight off her fears- change the scary thing into a "positive pretense."
She thinks, "Yes, that dog is undead, but look, he's wagging his tail! He' so happy to see his owner!"
Or, "My blanket is a magical fort of protection: nothing can get me in here!"
A Parent's Role in Calming a Child's Fears
Parents can play along with the "positive pretense" approaches to help their young children cope with their fears, saying, "I will use my Monster Exterminator Spray (aka room deodorizer) to rid our house of these scary beasts!" or cast a protection spell over your child so they can safely sleep through the night.
A preschool program called, "Things that go Bump..." suggests reading stories related to your child's imaginary fears. They provide suggested reading on their website that provide opportunities to discuss fears and real versus imaginary. The program also suggests playing games where your children can pretend you're a monster or dragon and run away and escape you. Then afterwards, discuss how they felt. Were they scared? Was there really a monster, or was it all pretend?
Parents can also introduce "reality affirmation" to their child, and help them try to understand that monsters are not real and cannot hurt you. Sayfan says that a study showed that children whose parents who used reality affirmation with them were more likely to trying it as their own coping strategy. With repetition, and just time to grow up, your child with be able to use their own reality affirmation to calm their fears.
While I may get frustrated by the shrills of horror coming from my four year old at any given encounter with a shadow or ant, I try to keep in mind that it's her young imagination hard at work. Someday, she won't call out for me to be comforted after a bad dream, or run to me to rescue her from a beetle on the playground. She won't need me as much, and that's what I find a little scary.