Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Health & Parenting

Font Size

Imagination Helps Tame Young Kids' Fears

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

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.

Today on WebMD

Girl holding up card with BMI written
Is your child at a healthy weight?
toddler climbing
What happens in your child’s second year.
 
father and son with laundry basket
Get your kids to help around the house.
boy frowning at brocolli
Tips for dealing with mealtime mayhem
 
mother and daughter talking
Tool
child brushing his teeth
Slideshow
 
Sipping hot tea
Slideshow
Young woman holding lip at dentists office
Video
 
Which Vaccines Do Adults Need
Article
rl with friends
fitSlideshow
 
tissue box
Quiz
Child with adhd
Slideshow