Health Education

Childhood Fears

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Why do the development of fantasy and language occur at the same time?

These two hallmark developmental achievements of the 3rd and 4th years of life are flip sides of the same idea: the concept of “representation” where the child is able to use the beginnings of abstract thought to allow something to stand for something else without a direct link. Previously, the child was only able to experience the world of direct contact. A bird was a bird, a fish was a fish and a dog was a dog. Suddenly, by using fantasy and imagination, a whole new world is opened. A bird can be a fairy that takes the child away from scary situations. A fish can be a piranha like being that gobbles up all the bullies in the area and a dog can be a monster that allows the child to confront his own fears.

Selma Fraiberg, in her landmark work, The Magic Years, notes that, “A child’s contact with the real world can be strengthened by periodic excursions into fantasy in a world where the deepest wishes can achieve imaginary gratification.” Thus, a child can achieve all his dreams and chase away all of his fears in a world that is amazingly easy to conjure up. Furthermore, as Suzanne Dixon points out in her book, Encounters with Children, “the ability to fantasize allows a child to mentally experiment with new sensations. The child can try out new roles for himself, new functions for toys and new sequences of events.” Negative feelings toward siblings, parents and playmates can be worked out in a safe manner. Mistakes can be covered and feelings, frustrations, anger and anxiety can be explored.

Most importantly, fantasy offers a child a measure of power and strength in a world dominated by adults. As a child matures, fantasy turns from a solitary pursuit to a shared experience. Friends share imaginative play, by “playing with Barbie’s or dinosaurs”. And so, social development parallels the expansion of fantasy and magic.

What is the relationship between fantasy and fear?

With the development of fantasy comes the development of fear. If you cannot imagine a monster, you cannot possibly be afraid of one. Suddenly, the Pandora’s box has been opened and the child who previously, had been blissfully unaware of the world of possibilities, must now be confronted by all of the possibilities, each with its own demon or goblin. Yet, fear is a normal and healthy response to this infinite world of possibilities. And future mental health does not depend on the presence or absence of monsters, their appearance or even their weapons but rather, on how the child deals with his monster problem. If fear invades a child’s life and he develops an attitude of fearful submission, then his life will be marked by anxiety and worry. And if he takes the opposite approach, feeling on guard against a perceived threat, then defiance and aggressiveness are likely to mark him forever.

What are the developmental stages of fear in children and how are they best handled?

  1. The Toddler Stage
    • Developmental fears: Toddlers fear large, loud and overwhelming things. It is healthy to fear barking dogs, noisy streets and large crowds of strangers. Fears of other children disappear by 20 months although sooner with earlier exposure (such as in day care). Fear of separation is very powerful at this age.
    • Dealing with fears at this stage: These fears are adaptive and best handled gently by not forcing the child to pet every dog or kiss every stranger (including seldom seen grandparents). Demystifying any separation with explanations and with maintenance of as much of the status quo as possible is the way to deal with these fears.
  2. Preschoolers
    • Developmental fears: Dixon notes that preschoolers are fearful of anything noisy, violent, or uncontrolled. Sounds and actions that suggest or describe destruction are particularly fear-inducing. And the reason is that such children are struggling with similar inner feelings and fantasies. Preschoolers fear feeling defenseless in confronting both their inner turmoil as well as external events that parallel these internal monsters. Nightmares begin to emerge at the same time as language, role-playing and other manifestations of imagination and are adaptive tools in dealing with the normal fears of this age. Fear of animals peaks at 3 years, fear of the dark peaks at 4–5 years and fear of imaginary creatures exists throughout this period. Preschoolers love stories that seem violent and aggressive to adults. Bruno Bettelheim noted that these stories reflect a child’s inner feelings and serve as an important support of emotional maturation by using fantasy as a medium.
    • Dealing with fears at this stage: Parents should not eliminate the frightening elements because a child will selectively use the elements necessary at their developmental stage. Facing fears is an important part of growing up. But as the developmental psychologist Sybille Escalona states, “Reassurance of our love and protection does most to keep a preschooler feeling safe. No matter what a preschooler’s fear is about on the surface, his real fear is that he may be hurt or lose the protective closeness of his parents.” Above all leave out cognitive responses. A child doesn’t want to hear that there is no monster or imaginary friend (Jessica by Kevin Henkes) but rather, that his parent respects his fears and will be there for him.
  3. School Aged Children
    • Developmental fears: Piaget notes that the thought processes of 6-12 year olds are dominated by a system of rules, logical explanations and regularities in events. Although the monsters disappear, the nightmares remain. Now fears are of remote events rather than something that recently occurred. Children at this age fear failure and rejection.
    • Dealing with fears at this stage: Hero worship is the most powerful at this age because parents, teachers and heroes embody the strength that the child himself still lacks. Because remote possibilities are the most fearful at this age, it is important to discuss issues thoroughly so that children can rehearse fearful situations and role-play solutions. Fears should be respected not shamed or ridiculed. Most children will conquer their fears on their own if it is approached with understanding rather than bullying.

What are some practical tools to help a child overcome his or her fears?

Fortunately, most children have a remarkably complex mental system for overcoming fears.

  1. A Human Protector: Long before a child develops his own defense mechanisms there is an external protector, his parents. Analogous to the fairies in fairy tales, these powerful beings can provide protection from external dangers and can help relieve tension and alleviate fears. Initially, parents provide all protection. As the child learns to fend for himself, the image of the strong and powerful parent remains available for stressful situations — to kill robbers, disarm bad guys and destroy monsters. Use this tool adaptively. Endowing Mommy and Daddy with extra powers to help a preschooler trust in them and protect them is often the easiest solution.
  2. Magic Monster Giggle Spray: Because having monsters is, on some level, adaptive, having a monster remover can be equally adaptive. Using a can of air freshener (which your child can actually pick out in the store) and endowing it with magical powers to make all monsters giggle (and then, of course, they no longer can be scary) is very helpful. Making a dreamcatcher on a cold wintery weekend day and endowing that dreamcatcher with magical powers can also be useful. This is actually the principle behind Sesame Street. Note that the characters are all monsters and yet, Cookie Monster and Hairy Monster all have goofy grins on their faces. By taming these so-called monsters, the child learns how to tame his/her own monsters.
  3. Child specific responses: Most children deal with their own demons and fears by creating some sort of imaginary monster or frightening animal. Some deal with this monster by endowing it with friendly characteristics (A World Full of Monsters by John Troy McQueen). Some deal with it by attacking it with guns and weapons (There’s a Nightmare in my Closet, by Mercer Mayer). And some deal with it by becoming the monster itself (Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak). It is imperative to help a child use his or her child specific approaches to dealing with internal demons.
  4. Investigation: Some children use investigation to deal with their fears. The child who “takes apart his house” is really exploring his world to uncover the reasons for his fears. Thus, mischievous examination of the house is simply a protective mechanism against anxiety.
  5. Education: Finally, understanding the important role of fear in childhood development and the necessary role of anxiety in producing healthy adults is imperative in helping your preschooler navigate the shoals. Read about witches, ghosts and goblins, allow him to fantasy play to the limits of his imagination with friends and by himself and limit graphic television exposure. And then set limits! For the goal of this exercise is to produce a self-confident, socially adept human being who can exorcise his demons and deal with his fears within the context of the real world.

What are some good books to read with children to help them with their fears?

  • Under the Bed by Paul Bright
  • Darkness Slipped In by Ella Burfoot
  • Too Many Animal Sleep In My Bed by Judith Clark
  • Monster by Andrew Daddo
  • The Monster Who Ate Darkness by Joyce Dunbar
  • A World Full of Monsters by John Troy McQueen
  • There is a Nightmare in my Closet by Mercer Mayer
  • Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
  • Wish Dog Tales: Afraid of the Dark by Lisa Shelton
  • Can’t You Sleep Little Bear by Martin Waddell