Have you ever woken from a dream that was so vivid you had to convince yourself it wasn't real? During those first unsure moments you are unable to separate dream from reality. Eventually, past experience allows you to ground yourself in the here and now. Unfortunately for preschool children, they lack this experience and often suffer at the hands of irrational fears and nightmares.
Preschool children do not have the ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality. In their minds if they experience it, it is real. For me, this fact was driven home after my four year-old spent the evening with a neighbor. My friend and next door neighbor, Sharon, invited my daughter to her house for movie night. They ordered pizza, fired up the VCR, and settled in for a little one-on-one time. When I picked my daughter up, she was unusually quiet. I just assumed she was tired from her girls' night in.
The rest of the night was uneventful and quiet. Too quiet. Normally, my daughter postponed bedtime with endless requests for stories, drinks of water, and questions. That night, after her story, she turned to the wall and I didn't hear another peep from her. Like I said, too quiet.
The following morning she peered at me over her cereal bowl and asked, "Why doesn't my heart glow?" Hmm. I responded with, "But your heart does glow. It glows when you laugh and when you smile." Not completely satisfied with the answer, she went back to contemplating her oatmeal. We rinsed the dishes and dressed for the day. While helping wrestle on her sweatshirt, I noticed my daughter seemed apprehensive. Her head was bowed and she was staring at her bare chest. I was stumped, and asked if there was something wrong. "I can't see my heart glow," she replied. "When the light goes out you die. I don't want to die." Figuring one of the older neighborhood children had told her a tall tale; I assured her that her heart did glow and that she was not going to die. "But it doesn't," she spit back. "I watched it all night, and my heart doesn't glow. Not like E.T.'s, and when his light went out he died. Ask Sharon. She saw it too."
Sharon. Movie night. E.T. Now everything was starting to make sense. My daughter did not question what she saw in the movie. She saw it, therefore, it was real. What she did question was what she didn't see, a light beam in her chest. She had stayed up all night searching for it in the dark. When it didn't materialize, she assumed she was dying, like E.T. I cradled my fearful four year-old and explained that it was just a movie and that movies were make believe. The look on her face told me she wasn't buying it, so I quickly changed tactics. "E.T. is an extra terrestrial," I said. "Do you know what that is?" When she shook her head no, tears sprinkled my face. "An extra terrestrial is a person from another planet. You don't look like E.T., do you? No. That is because you and E.T. are made differently. You have long blonde hair and he doesn't. He has crooked fingers and you don't. His heart glows and yours doesn't." Then I held her, massaged her head, told her I saw her heart glow everyday I loved her.
It took a while, but eventually my daughter stopped looking for her heart light. Her search and her fear, however, reiterated to me that preschoolers are very literal people. What they encounter, whether it is a dream, a movie or a book, is real to them. Therefore, it is important that parents exercise empathy and approach any fears with a literal awareness. Here are few tips that will help you comfort your fearful preschooler.
- Monitor Your Child's Exposure. One way to handle fears is to head them off at the pass. When choosing a book, movie or television show for your child, preview it first. Look for fantastical images or ideas that may be frightful for a young child. Try to imagine how you would respond to the material if you could not distinguish fantasy from reality.
- Adult Reasoning is not Comforting. Preschool children do not have the mental processes necessary to understand adult reasoning. Therefore, to tell them a movie is make believe, a book is just a story or a dream didn't really happen is not comforting. It is what you know to be true, but it is not your child's truth. Instead, concentrate on comforting your child with empathy. Tell them you understand that they are scared and that fear is an awful feeling. Let them know that you are there with them and will protect them for as long as it takes for the fear to subside.
- Use Soothing Words and Comforting Touch. When your child is afraid, use soothing words and comforting touch to calm them. If your child has a nightmare, sit with him and massage his temples or stomach until he is able to return to sleep. Use low, smooth tone of voice to tell him he is loved, and know that simply having a parent with him until the fear passes makes your child feel safe and cared for.
- Be Respectful. While a child's fear may seem silly to you, it is very serious for them. Respect that and honor your child's fear. If you downplay it or tell the child they are being ridiculous, you are teaching them to not trust themselves. Fear is fear, no matter how irrational it may seem.
Since preschool children can not differentiate between fantasy and reality, helping them overcome their fears can be challenging. Letting your child know he is loved, protected, and cared for can go a long way towards banishing his fears. That and the empathy that comes from remembering the weeks you spent hiding from flying monkeys after seeing the Wizard of Oz.
Dr. Caron B. Goode is the founder of the Academy for Coaching Parents International, a training and certification program for parent coaches. In addition to duties with the academy, Goode is the founding editor of the website www.InspiredParenting.net, and the author of ten books, the most recent of which is Nurture Your Child's Gift. For more information on The Academy for Coaching Parents International or to sign up for academy announcements, visit www.acpi.biz .