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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...

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.

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."

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