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Health & Parenting

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Imagination Helps Tame Young Kids' Fears

Researchers Have Tips for Easing Your Child's Fear of Monsters
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

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.

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