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 friendly monster.
''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 fear-inducing creature.
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.
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."
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.