Spooky stuff: Talking with children about ghosts, monsters and other childhood fears

From monsters under the bed, to wicked witches, children have a wide variety of fears. Learn more strategies to cope with your children’s fears this Halloween and beyond!

Parents and caregivers can help children learn to cope with their fears. Photo credit: Pixabay.
Parents and caregivers can help children learn to cope with their fears. Photo credit: Pixabay.

Is the ghost on the neighbor’s porch real or pretend? What about the monster under the bed? Some early childhood fears seem reasonable, and others are hard to understand. As parents and caregivers, we can help assure children that they are safe and to learn to cope with their fears.

Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget found that children under the age of seven had difficulty understanding the difference between fantasy and reality. This makes those ghost decorations, or the potential for the monster under the bed, seem much more scary, even if parents assure the child it is not real.

Piaget’s findings have continued to be proven over time. Recently, a 2011 study in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology titled Monsters, ghosts and witches: Testing the limits of the fantasy—reality distinction in young children, found that when children ages 3 to 5 were asked to distinguish real characters such as Michael Jordon or knights, from fictional beings such as monsters and dragons, they were only able to do so 40 percent of the time.

Parents and caregivers can help children learn to cope with their fears by taking them seriously and reassuring children that we will keep them safe. Children need adult’s calm reassurance, even though developmentally, they might not fully understand. However, it is important that adults go beyond a dismissive, “There is nothing to be scared of,” and go further to help reassure children. It is best for adults to acknowledge the child’s fear in language that they understand and then provide an explanation. For example, “That ghost decoration looks scary to you? If you look underneath the sheet, you can see it’s just plastic. It is not real.”

Pretend play can provide children with excellent opportunities to work through their fears. Providing props and costumes that are related to children’s fears can give them the space and time to work through those scary feelings and ideas in a safe and developmentally appropriate manner.

Another great way to help children work through fears is through children’s literature.  Reading about a character in a book who is facing their fears can give kids strategies to deal with their own. Chester the Raccoon from the Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn, faces his fears in a new book titled “Chester the Brave.” Children can read about poor little Plop, an Owl who is afraid of the dark in the book aptly titled, “The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark” by Jill Tomlinson. Fears of Halloween, and scary things in the dark can be tackled with “The Little Old Lady Who is Not Afraid of Anything” by Linda D. Williams. Children scared of monsters might find the book “Tickle Monster” by Josie Bisett reassuring, not all monsters are scary, some are just silly! Michigan State University Extension offers a wide variety of Family Book Sheets to help parents and caregivers expand on book concepts.

Parents and caregivers listening and communications skills are essential in helping children overcome their fears. Take time to acknowledge children’s fears and worries. Parent’s support and understanding can help make the things that go bump in the night much less scary for children.

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