Imagination Helps Tame Young Kids' Fears
Researchers Have Tips for Easing Your Child's Fear of Monsters
Nov. 13, 2009 -- Your preschooler wakes up in the middle of the night,
screaming there's a monster in the room. If you're like most parents trying to
calm their children's fears, your first instinct is to say: "Monsters aren't
real" and try to get your kid grounded in reality and back to sleep.
But if your child is 4 or younger, a better strategy may be to stay in your
child's fantasy world, according to the results of a new study, and help him or
her cope within it. Instead of injecting reality, you may, for instance,
encourage your child to aim a spray bottle of water at the creature, explaining
that it's anti-monster spray, or you may suggest the monster is actually a
''Stay in their imaginary world and make them more powerful, or change it to
make the imaginary world more positive," says researcher Liat Sayfan, PhD, a
post-doctoral research fellow at the University of California, Davis.
That works better, she says, because younger children -- while they know
deep down the monster isn't real -- have a harder time than older children
shifting out of that imaginary world and dealing with reality to cope. Her
study is published in the journal Child Development.
Coping With Fears
For the study, 48 children -- nearly evenly divided among 4-, 5-, and
7-year-olds -- listened to scenarios depicting a child alone or accompanied by
another person, including a mother, father, and a same-gender friend. In each
scenario, the child encounters something that looks like a real or imaginary
After each scenario, the kids predicted and explained each protagonist's
fear intensity and suggested ways to cope.
When the situations were judged as real, the kids would either say, "Let's
tackle this monster," or "Let's run away," Sayfan tells WebMD. It wasn't
age-dependent, but more gender dependent. The boys tended to want to fight
back, the girls opted for avoidance.
Sayfan also found interesting predictions of how scared the people with the
children would be, with the kids generally thinking their moms would be more
fearful than their dads.
But in the imaginary situations, she found differences in responses based on
age. ''Usually in the imaginary situation what the younger kids suggest is,
'Let's pretend the monster is really nice or friendly' or 'Let's take a sword
and attack a monster.'"
The older kids, especially those who were 7, were much more likely to do a
reality check. "They would say, 'Let's remind ourselves that monsters are not
real,''' Sayfan tells WebMD. Or: ''This dragon can't be there, there are no
dragons in the world."
The 4-year-olds who turned to fantasy to cope actually knew the monster
wasn't real, too, Sayfan says. But staying in the imaginary world to cope is
easier for them, she says, "because it's harder for them to shift their
attention. Their attention is in the imaginary world and they are absorbed in
it. With older kids, we know they are better at shifting attention and
inhibiting bad thoughts.