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Worries and Willies: Coping With the Monster Under the Bed

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It’s healthy for toddlers to be afraid of strangers, dogs, noisy environments, and separation from parents or care providers. Common fears of 3-year-olds also include masks, old people, darkness, parents going out at night, and animals. Every child, beginning in infancy, has fearful responses to some things; that is part of normal development and keeps kids a little wary (a good thing) in threatening situations.

Think about what scared you when you were young (and what still does). Many of your fears started during your early childhood, and you certainly didn’t take them lightly at the time. Lots of today’s scary movies are based on nothing more complex than the fear of strangers or the dark, and look how well they continue to do because we still carry some of those childhood fears.

 Imagining the Worst

 Helping a Child Cope With Fears

 When to Worry About My Child’s Worries?

Imagining the Worst

An older toddler or preschooler is capable of imagining frightening events that might happen, and he can put dark interpretations on things that have happened in the past or are happening now. This means that sometimes an object that is prompting his fear isn’t actually present, though your child’s imagination is allowing him to bring it with him. Here are some common bugaboos:

The Monster Under the Bed

Imaginary fears, particularly at night, can cause all-too-real anxiety in toddlers and preschoolers and should never be taken lightly. While a parent should acknowledge her child’s fearful feelings about an imaginary creature, she shouldn’t appear to buy into the idea that monsters really exist. At the same time, trying to argue your child out of his fears by attempting to convince him that they are imaginary—that the monster under the bed isn’t really there—won’t work either. Imaginary or not, these beliefs cause real fears, which in turn cause anxiety. What your child needs is reassurance, support, and the feeling of safety that you can provide. Snuggle with him, reassure him, tell him it’s a pretend monster. It’s helpful to remember that the other side of fear is fantasy: Both should be respected as an indication of mental growth.

A Shot in the Arm

A child this age also may become anxious about visiting the health care provider because she remembers being surprised and stung by the prick of an inoculation. While acknowledging that a shot may hurt for a few seconds, you can reassure your child that you will be there the whole time. Your steady confidence and presence during all procedures will help her manage her fear. In addition, tell your child that the doctor might also be looking in ears (which may tickle), talking to Mommy, and asking her questions, too. In other words, don’t dwell entirely on the most uncomfortable parts of the visit. Don’t lie, either: Shots do sting, but the sting doesn’t last long. Mistrust of a parent who has fooled him adds to a child’s general level of anxiety and worry. Always be truthful. And remember that children clearly know when their parents are uncomfortable or anxious, even if no one’s talking about it, and it’s natural for them to feel anxious when you do. Try to relax during a health care visit by scheduling routine ones for a time and place where you and your child are comfortable.

Helping a Child Cope With Fears

A parent’s role is essential. Here, a number of ways to help your child:

    • Never minimize your child’s fears. If you say there’s nothing to be frightened of, your child will think he is not being listened to. Instead of halting the fear, it teaches him that he will be rejected if he shares his feelings of being frightened.
    • Limit your child’s exposure to frightening images. Young children get very little out of television reports of war or disasters. When you watch such programs, try to do it by yourself.
    • Provide some context for what your child is seeing and hearing. If she hears the wail of fire engine sirens and sees the trucks race by, she knows there’s a fire. You can help her control her worry by explaining that the firefighters are trained to protect us by putting out fires; that the fire is not in her home; and that the sirens blast to alert other drivers to move to the side of the road so the firefighters can get to the fire quickly.
    • Keep in mind that kids don’t interpret things the same ways adults do. While you might love clowns, appreciating their exaggerated gestures and makeup and their bright costumes, your toddler may find those very same things frightening. A good way to prepare your child for a new event is to show him pictures beforehand.
    • A child’s fears may sometimes be prompted by adults’ behavior. This is especially true when a child hears his parents arguing or sees violence between them. She may be afraid she’ll be hurt in the conflict; adding to her worry is the fear of abandonment or the fear that she may be the cause of the trouble. These feelings are so strong that a child may not be able to express them; instead, she appears to be frightened of something else, a displaced fear. Focusing on this new fear won’t help. If you think that arguments or violence or special stressors or changes are sparking your child’s anxiety, reassure her over and over that she won’t be abandoned. Try to get things back to a routine as soon as possible.
    • Use books and stories to help overcome fears. There are many books that focus on events that frighten children. Read them to your child, taking time to talk about the characters’ feelings.

When to Worry About My Child’s Worries?

These general guidelines will help.

    • All children go through phases in which they are worried about different things. Be concerned about a child who seems to be stuck on a particular worry for weeks to months and has it intrude on his life frequently—a child who talks about scary dogs every day for a month or two, for example.
    • Children who develop elaborate rituals to deal with their fears, such as a search for monsters in the bedroom that is repeated every night in exactly the same manner for weeks, are a concern.
    • Children whose activities are chronically compromised because of their fears need another look. Such a child will never leave Mom’s side to play with other children, for example.
    • Children whose thoughts are dominated by the object of their fear need some help. Such children are afraid not only of airplanes or dogs, for example, but of pictures, stories, and even words associated with these things.

If your child’s worries seem to resemble any of the situations described above, talk to your health care provider to get some assistance.

Adapted from Encounters with Children; Pediatric Behavior and Development by Suzanne D. Dixon, M.D., and Martin T. Stein, M.D. (Mosby, 2000), and from Toddlers and Preschoolers by Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D. (Avon, 1994).



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