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Imagination Helps Tame Young Kids' Fears

Researchers Have Tips for Easing Your Child's Fear of Monsters

Coping With Fears continued...

The take-home point is clear, say Sayfan and her co-researcher, Kristin Hansen Lagattuta, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at University of California, Davis.  "Stay within that pretense [of the imaginary world], and make it where the child feels more powerful," Lagattuta says.

''Look at their understanding of how they make themselves feel less afraid," Lagattuta says.

You can always talk about reality in the morning, Sayfan says. In the midst of the monster experience, Sayfan says, you might say to your child: "Let's build a wall around us and pretend the monster can't get to us."

In the morning, she says, when the child's attention has shifted out of the imaginary world, you can remind him or her: "You know monsters don't really exist."

Second Opinion

Two other child development experts who reviewed the study for WebMD say the findings and advice make sense. ''I like the conclusion," says Marjorie Taylor, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, Eugene, and author of Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them

''For the child, the fear is there and it's hard to deal with it once it is there," she says. Staying in the imaginary world "helps them with the situation," she finds. ''When [fear] has gotten out of hand and is bothering them and scaring them, I stick with them,'' she says. For instance, she says, she will ask: "Is the monster scaring you? Maybe he is a baby monster and scared of the dark."

Staying in the fantasy world also helps when parents are dealing with imaginary friends, she finds. "Rather than focus on the fictional status of the imaginary friend, it's helpful to work within the context of the fantasy, she says. For instance, a child with an imaginary friend may tell his mother he doesn't want to leave home because the imaginary friend is sick.

Rather than saying, "Your friend isn't real," the parent might invent another imaginary friend who is willing to stay home with the sick one, she says.

Staying in the fantasy world of young children rather than focusing just on reality is a good idea, agrees Nathalie Carrick PhD, an assistant professor of child and adolescent studies at California State University, Fullerton, who has researched children's fear and other emotions.

''By saying 'It's not real', it's a little dismissive," she says.

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