Chicago dad Francisco Iacobelli can spend any given night
fighting off a menacing giant. When his son, Esteban, spots the
creature in the nighttime shadows, Iacobelli uses his hands and a
magic flashlight to make him disappear.
While Esteban, who is almost 3, has been worried about monsters
for a few months now, this particular giant has been popping up
ever since he first read about him in a book.
"He always sees monsters in the shadows. Any shadow at night
will be the giant," Iacobelli says. "When we're telling a story and
going to bed, he'll say, 'Oh, look, there's the giant.'"
Esteban's fears aren't unusual. Many Chicago area parents are
battling their own versions of the boogey monsters haunting the
"This is just a normal part of a child's development," says Dr.
Ada Wainwright, a psychology professor at the College of DuPage who
specializes in parenting issues and the social and emotional
development of children. "Their minds are active and they are going
to encounter things to be fearful of."
But it's finding ways to manage these active imaginations that
can sometimes stump parents.
For Iacobelli, thinking like his son and understanding where the
fear comes from has been the best tactic. And at least one study
suggests that this is a good way to approach younger children. "Get
into their imaginations and put a twist on it so that they feel
more in control," says Dr. Liat Sayfan, lead author on a study
about children's fears that was recently published in the journal
Sayfan's research began after her own struggles with nighttime
monsters. When her son was 4, his fear of witches, monsters and
ghosts made every bedtime a struggle. After trying several
techniques to calm him down, she found that the best way to deal
with his fears was to pretend that they were scaring the monster
together. She armed him with a magic sword to protect him at night
and told him that the house had a wall around it to keep him safe.
But when Sayfan shared her nighttime monster-slaying routine with a
friend who had a child the same age, she disagreed. "She told me,
'Now he's going to think that they truly exist,'" Sayfan says.
To settle the dispute, Sayfan set up a study where she lectures
at the University of California Davis to test children between the
ages of 4 and 7. She found that what works can sometimes depend on
how old the child is.
"The difference between the 4- and the 7-year-old is that the
4-year-olds stick with the imaginary and the 7-year-olds go back to
the real world," Sayfan says.
The younger children, for instance, were more likely to suggest
pretending that a scary witch was actually a friendly one or that
you had locked her up and thrown away the key, while the older
children would say that witches don't exist.
Taking this research into consideration, Sayfan's suggestion for
younger children is to stick with the imaginary by flipping a
situation into something less scary, like pretending the monster is
actually a baby monster that lost its parents and is hiding under
the bed. Then, the next morning, discuss what happened the night
before to help your child begin to sort the fantasy from the
reality. "Talk about it when they're all calmed down and reiterate
that it's not real," she says.
This separation between fantasy and reality, though, can be
difficult for young children who are learning how to manage and
regulate their emotions, Wainwright says. "They're getting better
and better at it, but controlling fear and anger are hard to
master," she says, adding that this makes nighttime fears a great
opportunity for parents to help children learn to work through
A good place to start, Wainwright suggests, is by taking the
fear seriously. "If you tell them it's not there, that's not going
to mean so much to them. Make a big deal about it," she says.
"Let's check the house. Let's check your closet, under the bed.
Make sure there's definitely nothing there."
And to limit the fears in the first place, try to restrict
books, movies and television featuring frightening characters. Her
own son, for instance, required a nightly monster check after he
read Where the Wild Things Are.
"If they don't know about it, they're not going to think about
it," Wainwright says.
Yet sometimes, scary characters can pop up when parents don't
Julie Newman, a mother of two in Aurora, for instance, thought her
daughter Maddie, now 9, would love watching "The Little Mermaid"
when she was 5. Instead the film's villain, Ursula, terrified
When Maddie told her mother that she was afraid Ursula would
come into her room at night, Newman and her husband tried several
reassurance techniques before coming up with the idea to help her
write a letter to post on her door. "The overriding message was,
'Stay out of my room,'" Newman says. And a few years later, when
she had similar fears about the characters from the PBS show Noddy,
Maddie wrote the note on her own.
"For her, it was an empowering thing, especially when she wrote
it herself, to take control of the situation," Newman says. "There
was this letter on the door. They weren't going to bother her."
While Maddie now understands the difference between what is real
and what isn't, her 4-year-old brother Casey is having some of the
same nighttime fears of characters. This past Christmas, for
example, he was anxious about Santa Claus, but took comfort when he
realized he wouldn't come near his bedroom on the second floor. So
when he remembered that last year the Easter Bunny hid their basket
in the upstairs closet, the family came up with the plan to leave a
note this Easter to tell him that he must stay downstairs.
"Young kids can view things so differently," Newman says.
"Something seemingly so innocent can really trigger a bad negative
Sometimes, though, children's nighttime fears leave the realm of
fantasy entirely, and they start to worry about a real person
breaking in at night or a fire burning the house down.
When this happens, Wainwright suggests making a household safety
check part of the bedtime routine. "If they have a fear, then you
brush your teeth, put on pajamas and lock the doors together every
night," she says. "Then go upstairs and read a story." And make
safety precautions visible in your home, she suggests. Let them
help you to change the batteries in the fire alarm or go around the
house together to double check that all of the windows are
But for exasperated parents who haven't yet found the right way
to handle nighttime fears, rest easy-Wainwright says this is a
phase that typically peaks between ages 3 and 6 and usually passes.
"Over time, you want the fear to go away and for your kids to be
good sleepers," she says. "From my experience, these things don't
last too long."
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