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Boo! Helping Children Cope with Imaginary Fears

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album
Reviewed by David Diehl, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

Today is Halloween, and my children are incredibly excited. For the first time, my younger child seems fascinated with “scary” costumes, decorations, and so on, revelling in making a creepy jack-o-lantern and dressing up as a spooky dementor from Harry Potter. I’m happy that they’re having fun, but I’ve been a little concerned that he might scare himself at some point! After all, it wasn’t so long ago that he was worried about monsters in his room at night or man-eating bears sneaking in through the side door.

Coping with Nighttime Fears

Do you remember being afraid of the ghost in the closet, or another similar boogeyman? Halloween can be a common time for these fears, since even young children may see scary scenes or frightening outfits at this time of year. Parents often wonder how to best handle these situations—which often seem to come up at bedtime or in the night, sometimes disturbing everyone’s sleep. Some try strategies that make use of children’s imaginations, such as spraying “go-away monster spray,” while others opt for frequent and fact-based reassurance that these creatures are not real.

Understanding more about children’s development may provide some insight. In a study in the journal Child Development, researchers used pictures and stories to talk with 48 children between the ages of 4 and 7 about frightening situations. Some stories featured a scary real thing, like a bear, while others showed something imaginary, like a monster or ghost. Children were asked what the characters should do to handle the problem and reduce their fear.

“Scare it Away” by Playing Along?

Older children were likely to suggest that characters who were afraid of “pretend” entities could remind themselves that these scary creatures didn’t exist. But younger children’s recommendations were often based in fantasy, such as suggesting that the characters might tell themselves the ghost was a nice one. This was true even though almost all the children indicated that they knew monsters and ghosts were not real.

With this in mind, these authors advise keeping children’s age in mind when they struggle with fears like these. With children under age 7, helping them use their imaginations to make their pretend world more positive may actually be productive. But as children get older, affirming reality is a better strategy.

Here’s hoping that your little ghouls and goblins sleep well tonight. Have a great, safe, and not-too-scary holiday with your family.

(Photo credit: green sheet spook by creepyhalloweenimages. CC BY 2.0. Cropped.)

References:

Hutcheon, S. (2009). Study offers tips on taming the boogie monster. Retrieved from http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-11/sfri-sot110609.php

Sayfan, L., & Lagatutta, K. H. (2009). Scaring the monster away: What children know about managing fears of real and imaginary creatures. Child Development, 80(6), 1756-1774.

(Originally published in a different form as: Church, C. (2012). Helping children of different ages deal with imaginary fears. [Radio broadcast episode]. Family Album Radio. Gainesville, FL:  University of Florida.)