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Monsters, Fairies and Nightmares — Oh My! Preschoolers and Fears

by Dr. Heather Wittenberg | April 8, 2011 | Child Development

By Dr. Heather

Watch 3-year-olds play: one is caught up in an elaborate make-believe world of roaring dinosaurs, towering giants, and mean doctors administering shots. Another is creating an amazing menagerie of stuffed animals, each one with it’s own role, family, and costume. Imagination — to the max. Scientists and philosophers agree that imaginative play is at the root of all human civilization — the root of all human civilization. So the next time a tea party spontaneously happens at your house, remember that it’s not just a tea party — it’s the crowning achievement of your child’s development thus far. Besides, it’s a lot of fun.

But these new creative powers come at the cost of security. Why? For a baby, the dark is simply — dark. If you can’t imagine a monster in the dark, there simply isn’t one to fear. But when your imagination goes wild, it can come up with fantastic things – things that are sometimes fantastically scary. Creativity automatically increases fears and anxieties in children. And it’s one of the most common questions I hear from parents of preschoolers — Why is my child so frightened all of a sudden?

A creative mind wanders — and wonders. What would happen if the dinosaurs starting biting each other? What if the dinosaurs started biting ME? And what if I bit back? Because your preschooler is also concerned about her OWN aggression. Sometimes SHE is the scary dinosaur. And she knows that scary dinosaurs sometimes bite — and get sent to Time-Out. Her 3-year-old mind doesn’t yet know how to handle her aggression. But don’t worry, it’s normal — all of us have natural, inborn aggression. Thank goodness — because our aggression, when directed wisely, can be molded into assertiveness, healthy competitiveness, and the drive to succeed. But it’s scary-powerful to your preschooler, who hasn’t figured that all out yet.

A complicating factor is that she can’t yet understand the difference between imagination and reality. You can try all day to explain to her that “dinosaurs and monsters don’t exist” — but she won’t believe you. They exist to her — and your reassurances simply won’t carry any weight. Cognitively, she can’t distinguish fantasy from reality — and she won’t be able to until sometime in first grade.

So, what’s a parent to do? Here are some tips for reassuring your scaredy-cat preschooler:

  • Follow along in her imaginative story with interest and respect. Find creative openings for a super-hero or other protective force. Weave in a “rescuer” theme, while still letting it be her story. She’ll “absorb” your protective powers through her story. Logic doesn’t matter – the magic of her story does.
  • Fairy tales and other popular children’s stories have scary themes for a reason — they’re meant to help preschoolers work out their own fears and aggression. It’s OK to allow some exposure to “scary stories.” After all, you can’t protect her from her own imagination. Just don’t OVERDO the scary stories and TV.
  • Use “totems” and other imaginative props for protection — “Monster Spray” (water in a spray bottle) is a good example. One of my preschoolers used to rely on his “Magic Headphones” to keep out the sound of monsters. Try lots of options, and use whatever works.
  • Nightmares are a common development at this age. Along with these scary thoughts, your preschooler’s sleep cycle is changing. Reinforce nighttime routines and rituals to keep things predictable. Provide reassurance at night (and give the bedroom an extra spritz of Monster Spray).

Your appreciation of your child’s creativity – and reassurances of her safety – will help ensure she gets through this fascinating time with a focus on the fun (and not on the fears)!

Once your preschooler is through this time, she’ll be all ready for kindergarten. So make sure to check out my blog post regarding keys to Kindergarten readiness.