According to experts at Bradley Hospital, young children have a growing—and vivid—imagination and are often unable to differentiate between what's real and what's pretend. That's why they may suddenly become fearful of objects or events that they did not seem to mind only months earlier or are very frightened by trick-or-treaters dressed up in scary costumes.
“It's natural for children to develop childhood fears—it's part of their normal growth and development,” says Peter Gillen, PsyD, a psychologist with Bradley Hospital. “As kids try to figure out the world around them, they are not entirely sure of what's fantasy and what's reality, so their imagination can create incredible things, like monsters. Halloween is also difficult for young kids to understand - why would a person do something scary on purpose? Preschoolers are also creatures of habit, so fear is often the way they react to unpredictable and unexpected events.”
Gillen says that some of the most common fears experienced by young children are the dark, thunderstorms, monsters, animals and loud noises. Many children this age are also scared and anxious about being separated from their parents, especially when they are in a new situation, such as starting a new school. As children grow older and they learn to separate what's real from what's imaginary, they begin to develop more socially-oriented or abstract fears, such as social isolation, popularity and bullying.
For children who are frightened by Halloween, Gillen suggests that parents offer alternative activities to distract from the scary aspects of the holiday. He suggests asking your child to help in the Halloween preparations, such as carving the pumpkin or getting the candy ready. Rather than taking a child trick-or-treating, parents may want to have a child who is especially fearful assist with handing out candy, since kids feel safer and more secure in their own home.
He also offers the following tips to parents to help them ease their child's fears:
Allow your child to share some of his or her fears and acknowledge the fear as something that is valid. The fear, however unfounded, is causing real anxiety. Offer support and comfort and use a calm voice and reassuring words.
Encourage your child to talk about his or her fears so he or she can learn to gain control over the fear. Show your child ways to cope with fears, such as taking deep breaths or keeping a flashlight by the bed.
It is important for parents to model a calm approach to confronting fears in achievable steps, rather than allowing children to avoid all of life's moments that contain anxiety. Alternatively, it is important not to force children to face a fear they are not prepared to face because “they should not be afraid.”
If a child does not respond to repeated reassurances, if the fears are interrupting the child's development or daily activities, or if the child is past the age where it is developmentally normal for them to be afraid of something like monsters, it may be time to consult a pediatrician or mental health professional.
For more information, call Bradley Hospital at 401-432-1364.