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Tips to tame toddlers’ fears

Is there a monster in the closet? Of course not, but it can be hard to convince a three-year-old of that!

Thank goodness, a new study offers ideas on how you can better manage your children’s fears.

The study, conducted by scientists at the University of California, Davis, appeared in the November/December 2009 issue of the journal Child Development.

Researchers studied around 50 children, ages four, five, and seven–prime time for nightmares and other fears. The researchers tried to find coping strategies that can be carried out by children.

The children listened to a series of short illustrated stories. Each story featured a child alone or with another person who came into contact with something that looked like a real or an imaginary frightening creature, such as a snake or a ghost. The researchers then asked the children to predict how intensely afraid each of the children in the stories were, to give a reason why each child felt that way, and to offer a way to help the child in the story feel less afraid.

The scientists discovered that in situations in which a child’s fear was caused by real creatures, children would rather do something than think positive thoughts. In these situations, boys more often suggested fighting, while girls more often wanted to avoid the creature.

The researchers also found that between ages four and seven, children show more understanding that people’s thoughts and beliefs can both cause and reduce fear. While preschoolers tended to suggest pretending the imaginary creature was friendly, older children tended to suggest reminding themselves what the reality was. Therefore, the researchers say, preschoolers may benefit from seeing things in a more positive light (“Let’s pretend the dragon is nice”). But on the other hand, older children might do better if they focus on what is real and what is not (“Dragons aren’t real”).

The researchers think that it’s helpful if parents keep in mind their children’s age-appropriate abilities when helping them deal with their fears, especially those fears of imaginary creatures.

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