"Mommy! Come quick. There's a monster under my bed. HURRY!"
Welcome to the club. Your preschooler is now gripped with panic as a result of nothing more harmless than a nighttime shadow. Although fears of the dark or nocturnal intruders are extremely common, they are often misunderstood and, consequently, mishandled by well meaning but misguided parents.
THE ORIGIN OF YOUNG CHILDREN'S FEARS
For all healthy adults, there is a thick wall separating fantasy from reality. We rarely, if ever, confuse the two.
For preschool children whose minds are not yet fully developed, however, the wall between fantasy and reality is quite thin. When young children listen to bedtime stories, for example, they may react with the same intensity of emotion we would reserve only for real life events. But to young children, it is as if the stories are actually happening as they hear them.
When a mental picture enters a child's mind, therefore, the child cannot easily distinguish between fact and fantasy. If the child imagines a monster under his/her bed or a burglar outside the window, the child is convinced that the image is as real as the shadow in his/her room.
Why lying in bed trying to fall asleep, children's imagination become activated much the same way the minds of adults tend to wander as they drift off to sleep. Adults tend to dismiss any fearful image that pops into their minds. Young children are not yet capable of doing that.
WHAT PARENTS SHOULD NOT DO
Some parents believe that it is helpful to ridicule children's fears. After all, if there is no basis in reality for these fears, why give them any credence? If we show children how silly they are, won't that help them to grow up and discard these foolish anxieties? Shouldn't parents make fun of these fears so that their children will also learn to put their immature concerns into proper perspective?
No, no, a thousand times, NO! Mocking children for their worries will only serve to make matters much worse. Children feel abandoned, ashamed and much more frightened when their fears are belittled by their parents.
By deriding your child for his/her fears, you are hurting him/her in a number of ways. Firstly, you are causing him/her to feel like a total failure. S/he is unable to meet up to what you are expecting of him/her, because your expectations are unrealistic. Secondly, you are teaching him/her that s/he cannot come to you for reassurance and support. Finally, you are demonstrating without a doubt that you totally misunderstand his/her feelings.
WHAT PARENTS CAN DO
There are a number of steps parents can and should take that will go a long way towards helping preschoolers learn the emotional skills necessary to manage, cope with and eventually overcome their childhood fears. Any of these steps will reduce the intensity of the fears. None of these steps will eradicate the fears immediately. Over time, however, with patience and persistence, using two or more of these steps will ensure that your child will eventually outgrow his/her childhood fears.
1. Respond as soon as possible. Keeping your young child waiting until you finish your coffee, phone conversation or magazine article will only allow the fear to mushroom in your child's mind. Your physical presence in your child's room will automatically and immediately reduce the anxiety s/he is feeling.
2. Encourage your child to talk about his/her fear. Many parents mistakenly believe that talking about fears intensifies them. This is as equally untrue for children as it is for adults. Just as we calm down if we are allowed to vent our concerns and worries, so too children will experience an immediate reduction of the intensity of their fears if they are permitted to describe what is frightening them.
3. Do not dismiss the fears right away. "Let me get a flashlight, so we can take a good look under your bed. I don't think there is anything there but we can check just to be sure."
Your willingness to investigate shows that you are sincerely trying to help. Your child will be more ready to accept reassurance from you once you have given his/her fears some credibility.
4. Speak calmly, in a gentle tone of voice. If your child senses that you are frustrated or irritated, s/he will interpret that as helplessness on your part, which will generate even more anxiety for him/her. It is as if s/he is thinking, "If my parents are out of control and helpless, then this monster must really be terrifying!"
Your calm tone of voice will have a soothing effect. In addition, it will convey to your child that you are not at all alarmed by his/her fears. The message you will be giving your child is, "We can handle this together. So there is nothing to panic about."
5. Validate your child's feelings. "I'm sure it must have been very frightening for you if you thought a monster was hiding under your bed. Monsters are very scary."
6. Only after taking the above steps are you ready to offer reassurance. "You know, Benny, there really are no such things as monsters. They are only in pictures in story books but do not exist in real life. Remember when we went to the zoo? They had all sorts of animals there, but we did not see any monsters, did we? And even the scary animals that we did see were all locked up in cages behind strong bars so they cannot escape."
This would also be a perfect time to reinforce your child's awareness of God's benevolence and omnipresence. "And remember what I've always told you, Sarah, that God is constantly watching over all of us to protect us from any harm."
7. Consider installing a night light in your child's room. A night light serves the same function as training wheels on a bicycle. It is not meant as a permanent solution, but rather as a temporary aid until such time as it is no longer needed. A night light allows enough darkness for your child to fall asleep while providing enough light to reduce his/her childhood fears. It is a very legitimate solution which can be discarded as your child matures.
8. If your child is still frightened, you may have to offer more evidence of your commitment to protecting him. "Yes, I suppose one of the lions could possibly escape from the zoo. But we live in a house very far from the zoo. And we have very strong doors and windows so no animals could ever get into our home. Daddy and I made sure of that before we moved in here so you and your brothers and sisters would always be safe."
9. Include nonverbal reassurances. The logical connection may not be readily apparent to you, but it is nonetheless extremely comforting to frightened children when they are kissed, hugged and held by their parents. The physical affection you offer during this mini-emotional crisis will go a long way towards enabling your child to borrow from your strength and eventually outgrow his/her fears.