“Go Away, Monster Under My Bed!” How to Help a Child to Overcome Their Fears?
Parents often complain, saying “My child is afraid of monsters. Can you tell me what to do about that?”. This is one of the most popular requests made to psychologists. However, modern films, the Internet, and the availability of information should not be blamed for the prevalence of children’s fears, as ghosts and monsters were there long before the invention of electricity and writing.
“Every fairy tale must have a good old villain…”—that is we, adults, who create terrible visual representations of monsters with claws, fangs, and a willingness to catch and drag someone into the darkness. Therefore, it is we who pass these fears onto our children. Why do we invent these horror stories? How can you help the kids who are scared of them, to deal with those fears?
- What is Phasmophobia?
- How to Help the Child to Stop Fearing an Imaginary Threat?
What is Phasmophobia?
It turns out that the fear of monsters under the bed has got a certain scientific name—phasmophobia. The meaning of the word phasmophobia, stemming from the Greek words “phasma”—ghost, and “phobia”—fear, according to the dictionary of medical terms, is the obsessive fear of ghosts, goblins, devils, and other imaginary creatures. The images of what children are afraid of have got a strong dependence on the surrounding cultural and social environment. For instance, a modern child living in a big city is not afraid of a goblin, however, after watching the movie “It”, they may begin to be afraid of clowns.
Mary arrived at her appointment with her 5-year-old daughter. Her request was the following: the daughter was afraid to go to the swimming pool, saying that she fears being dragged away by a monster that lives in the depths of the water. At the same time, the child has never been in a situation, in which she felt like she was drowning. She swims in the river with no problem and loves to do it. However, when I began talking to the mother, details from her childhood began to emerge. “I hate the smell of chlorine in the pool, so my daughter was always taken to her swimming lessons either by my husband or a nanny. In elementary school, PE classes were at the swimming pool, instead of the school gym. I didn’t know how to swim, and somehow, on the first lesson, a classmate just pushed me into the water. He later explained to me that this is how his father taught him not to be afraid of the water. The pool was shallow, I could not have drowned, but I still choked on some water in the panic. Since then, I have not re-entered into the water, even in the sea, going deeper than above waist level. I signed my daughter in to learn how to swim so that she could overcome my fears,” said the woman.
It is normal for a person of any age to be afraid of what they don’t understand. Not being able to find an explanation for what is happening, the psyche “freezes”, if you were to use some IT terminology. Nevertheless, it cannot remain in this state for a long time, thus it clings onto the strangest interpretations of what is happening. This is where the belief in ghosts, aliens, poltergeists, the souls of the dead, and hundreds of other phobias, stems from.
Most often, the fear of fictional creatures appears in children aged three years and older. During this time, the child begins to feel themselves as an individual who is separate from their parents and is looking for their own explanations for everything that happens around them.
All young children have phasmophobia. They have a rich imagination and an insufficient understanding of the world, which makes them easily suggestible and enables them to have a low degree of critical thinking.
With an increased understanding of the world around the child, most fears gradually disappear. However, some of them may not only stay there but also become stronger and develop into serious adult phobias.
How to Understand That a Child Needs Help in Overcoming Their Fear of Monsters? Red Flags
Not every child wants to talk to adults about their fears and phobias. How to understand that a child cannot cope with their monsters on their own, even if they are fictional? Here are some signs of that:
- The child refuses to do what they are used to: they are afraid to stay in the room on their own, they ask not to turn off the light, refuse to go to school or extracurricular classes on their own.
- They become quiet and antisocial, or aggressive, on the contrary.
- They are startled by sudden sounds or flashes of light.
- They are suffering from insomnia and nightmares, and cry in their sleep.
- Sometimes, in the most serious cases, enuresis appears, and the child may begin to bite their nails or pull out their hair.
What to do if you notice at least three of the indicators named above? Start with talks:
- DO NOT ask: a child may not always be ready to discuss their fears, especially if they are quite deeply rooted in their minds.
- Tell them what you were afraid of as a child and how these fears turned out to be fake, as well as how did you manage to cope with them and who helped you (parents, friends, teachers, etc).
- Explain that monsters on TV are created by computers and that scary stories are written by ordinary people with rich imaginations, etc.
When is it worth going to a psychologist with children’s fears? This is more a question of your condition, rather than the condition of the child. If you don’t feel your own inner strength to work on the matter, entrust it to a professional.
Where Does the Fear of Ghosts or Monsters Originate From?
Psychologists discovered long ago that the mechanism of the appearance of fears and phobias in children and adults is completely different. First, let’s look for reasons why we, as adults, are afraid of fictional or invented matters.
There are no predators to be afraid of in the modern world, as the lookout for food has ceased to be so frightening and dangerous. However, at the same time, the functioning of our brain has changed very little. One of the oldest brain systems is the so-called “reptilian brain”, responsible for basic needs, such as hunger, sleep, and thirst. In order to start performing an action, we need psychic energy, and it is taken from a specific structure located along the entire axis of the brain stem: the reticular formation. It is this formation that sends signals to the level of the reptilian brain.
Our need for survival which “resides” in the “reptilian brain”, is evolutionarily programmed to seek out danger. This way, when the brain does not see serious problems in reality, it begins to speculate. It is widely known that during war or natural disasters, neuroses and phobias disappear since a person begins fighting for their real survival.
Therefore, when we talk about adults and their fears, everything is pretty clear: the brain generates energy to meet basic needs. When these needs are satisfied, but there is some energy left, the brain does not perceive real dangers as threats, thus the search for imaginary dangers begins. Children, on the other hand, seek satisfaction of their basic needs primarily from their parents and from other adults that they trust, such as relatives, grandparents and teachers. Therefore, they draw fears from the people around them.
Let’s now look at the sources of fears in our children. According to the personal experience of a psychologist working with parents and children, the source of these fears lies in us, the parents, to a large extent. What do we do and why do we do it, so that our children begin to fear certain things?
- We want to be needed by children as protectors. Therefore, we need to watch scary films together with the child, being there for them to cuddle up with us.
- We’re trying to tell them and to warn them of the dangers of the world around them. Therefore, we tell them tales about bad-behaving kids who are taken away by a gray wolf or an evil wizard.
- We want to show the difference between good and evil. Therefore, we read books where a good hero defeats a bad monster.
- We don’t know how to explain certain things or provide answers to some complex questions. Therefore, we tell mystical and paranormal stories.
- It seems to us that horror films are fun and that we are trying to give more emotions to our children. For the same reason, we dress up for Halloween and make some spooky jokes.
- We devalue the experiences of our children. Therefore, we ridicule their fears and make ironic comments about their fantasies.
- Last but not least, we are anxious. It seems to us that we are experiencing it because of some objective matters, such as mortgage payments, health status, income level, and so on. Nevertheless, our children can only sense that we are worried without an explanation.
Why is it enough for some children to catch a glimpse of a scary image in a movie and start having nightmares, whilst others can calmly watch horror films and eat popcorn? The simplest explanation is the level of emotionality and impressionability of each particular child. The emotional maturity and stability of a child depend on the calmness and poise of the adults who surround them.
Peter turned to a psychologist with a request to help him deal with the fears of his nine-year-old son. A well-rounded, sociable and cheerful boy suddenly started to be afraid to go to school on his own about two years ago, despite it being located only two blocks away from their house. “My wife and I both work, our parents live far away, and we cannot afford to hire a nanny just to pick up and drop off the child. Jack has been going to school by himself since the second grade, and was proud of his independence when this came out of nowhere”, shared Peter.
We have been looking for the causes of the boy’s sudden fears for some time until I asked the boy’s mother to come to see me as well. “My husband was very proud of the fact that Jack is an easygoing child, who easily finds common ground with adults and his peers. However, it was worrying me. After all, there can be so many dangerous and unpleasant people around. At his age, he still cannot decide for himself whether a person is good or bad. I just wanted to show my son that he doesn’t have to be so open!”. The woman suddenly started crying. Of course, during therapy, we could not tell the child that their mother was wrong. Nevertheless, we began to work with the mother’s fears in the first place and asked Jack to help us. The little child, together with me, as a professional, was teaching his mother to trust the world.
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How to Help the Child to Stop Fearing an Imaginary Threat?
Is it possible to prevent children’s fears from turning into phobias and nightmares? Undoubtedly. Let’s take a look at some basic techniques.
First, a message to parents: get your fears under control! This is the first and most important rule. Our panicked desire to protect our children from the outside world can automatically turn into trust issues and nightmares. No matter how hard it is, speak to them and explain everything calmly, no matter what happens.
Do not rush to tell some scary stories, especially if your child is very emotional by nature. In this case, horror movies and stories with frightening villains will have to wait until the age of middle school.
Make fun of the monsters, not the child’s fears. When your son or daughter comes to you and tells you that they are afraid of ghosts, darkness, vampires, etc, do not dismiss their complaints. Take the time and explain to them why these monsters simply cannot exist. Discuss who invented them and how, and provide some scientific proof, having studied the topic by yourself in the first place, and then presenting it to the child in an easy-to-understand format.
How to Deal With an Existing Fear of Monsters and Ghosts?
If the fears and phobias of monsters, zombies, and other fictional evil spirits are already here, how can you help your child deal with them?
- Take the child’s fears seriously. Leave the lights on, if they are afraid of the dark. Look in the closet and under the bed if the child fears that monsters can crawl out of there. Show that you care and that you are ready to protect them from anything that they are afraid of, fictional or real.
- Be honest. You will have to find real answers to difficult questions about the fact that the grandmother died and will not come again, or how to protect themselves from a pedophile or aggressor, as well as where the Earth came from, and to hundreds of other questions.
- The “Boggart” method. Together with your child, watch the part of the Harry Potter films where the teacher invites the students to call their biggest nightmare out of the closet, and the only way to deal with it is through laughter. Together with your child, draw or describe their fears in the most ridiculous way, and laugh as loudly as possible.
- Be rational. If the child is afraid of characters from horror films, find photos or videos that show how these monsters were created with the use of makeup, costumes and scenery. If the child is afraid of ghosts, use science to help to justify the nature of paranormal phenomena.
- Give your child a protective object. Accept the fact that you cannot always be there to protect your child from fears. This means that they will need something that will provide a feeling of peace and security, such as a favorite toy, a bracelet, a pendant, or anything else that they can hold or stroke, allowing them to calm down. Tell them that the teddy bear will scare away the monsters, or that the keychain is a magical protector against monsters and scary creatures.
It is normal for both adults and children to be afraid. However, it is important to remember that you control your fears and that they don’t control you. No matter how old you are, whether it is three years old, 15 or 45, you are not alone in your fight against the most terrible monsters. There will always be someone nearby who will say, “look, this monster is just a computer effect, no one is hiding under the bed, and walking home together isn’t scary at all”!
The picture on the front page: Morrowind/Shutterstock.com
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