Monsters in the closet

As a child’s imagination develops, so too can her fears

Teresa Pitman 0

It started with an owl. “Rodryck was about 3½ when he began to worry about the owl that he said was hiding in our stairs. He needed to wear his bike helmet indoors to protect him from it,” says his mother, Julie Drapeau. “Then he saw Monsters, Inc., and the owl morphed into a monster that could hide all over the house.”

Not even the helmet seemed to work against monsters, and Rodryck often came crying to his parents at night because he was scared. He even went on a “monster hunt” one day and reported back to his mom that he’d found five invisible monsters hiding around the house.

When fears develop

“These fears often start around three to five years of age, when a child’s imagination is developing,” says Jeanne Williams, a psychologist in Edmonton. “Triggers can include anything that is stressful or scary to a child, such as a new school, moving, new baby, divorce, illness or something the child saw on TV.”

Once a child like Rodryck has begun to believe in monsters in the closet, it can be hard for parents to know how to respond. Should they tell the child that monsters aren’t real? Should they pretend that monsters are real and offer a pretend solution (such as spraying the room with air freshener and calling it anti-monster spray)?

The most important thing, Williams says, is not to minimize or dismiss the child’s fears. The monster is very real to her. “It may be helpful to the parent to think of the monster as representing things a child is afraid of,” she suggests. “Once you have that in your mind, it’s easier to respond in a way that acknowledges a child’s fears.”

Reassurance

Some children will feel better if you just tell them monsters aren’t real. Having a night light or flashlight in bed, so that they can see for themselves that nothing is there, may work too. The key is to be matter-of-fact yourself: If you seem worried or afraid, you might magnify the child’s fears.

Williams finds that this kind of reassurance often isn’t enough for a worried preschooler, who is at an age when the boundary between reality and fantasy is often blurred. If your child insists the monsters are still there, Williams suggests parents say: “Let’s talk about how we can make the monster go away.”
This can be done in the spirit of pretending: “Monsters aren’t real, but if you’re feeling scared, we can pretend that monsters are afraid of light and this night light will keep monsters out of your room.” There are plenty of strategies parents have used to provide anti-monster reassurance:

• conducting a search of the room and closets before bedtime to ensure all the monsters are gone
• buying (with the child) some stuffed animals — perhaps tigers or bears — to protect against monsters
• letting the family cat or dog sleep in the child’s room
• having the child draw a picture portraying the monster, then a second one showing how the monster was chased away

Rodryck came up with his own solution. “One night when he was feeling worried about the monsters, he said, ‘Mommy, sing me the No Monsters song,’” says Drapeau. “I told him I didn’t know that song, so he sang it for me.” The song lyrics were There are no bad monsters here. Bad monsters are not allowed. Only good monsters can come in.

That song — and its many variations — has become a regular part of Rodryck’s bedtime routine since that day.

“It’s a good idea to sit down with the child in the daytime, give her some options about how to get rid of the monsters and ask her what she thinks would work,” Williams says. “This gives the child a feeling of power over her problems. You want to teach her not that there is nothing in the world to fear, but that we can overcome our fears and live happy, meaningful lives in spite of scary things.”

Drapeau says she doesn’t worry that their No Monsters song will make the monsters seem more real. “They may not be real to me, but they are real to him. I’m glad that he figured out a simple solution that works so well for him — since we started doing the song, he’s only gotten up once and been afraid of the monsters, and then we just had to sing it again.”

When monsters are too scary

Edmonton psychologist Jeanne Williams says that, in most cases, a preschooler’s fear of monsters is a normal stage. But if the child’s anxiety or methods of dealing with the fear is disrupting the family or the child’s sleep over a long period, professional help might be useful to deal with the underlying fears.

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