My 5-year-old daughter is fine with scary stories until she has to go to bed. The trouble starts when she is lying under the covers in her darkened room, separated from her parents not only by the admittedly small distance of a few yards and one wall but also by the infinitely vaster distance of imagination. And the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I can still recall my 11-year-old self, hunkered down with a neighborhood playmate, reading ghost stories (against my parents’ advice) and being certain, in the full light of day, that such ridiculous stories would never affect me. I didn’t sleep for a week.
My daughter, Julienne, is similarly full of confidence during the day and similarly terrified at night. Seemingly innocuous images catalyze this reaction in her 5-year-old mind. Once it was the giant depicted in Mickey and the Beanstalk. We dealt with that one for several nights. Once it was a mildly disturbing character from a children’s magazine, even though that character was clearly intended to come across as impish. There was a dragon from one story or another. The odd witch or two. Julienne has yet to experience such classics as Disney’s Snow White or Cinderella, not because we have anything against those movies, but because we know she won’t be able to handle the villains depicted in them.
When I am called into my daughter’s room to reassure her in her moments of fear, what strategy should I adopt to alleviate my child’s fear in her time of need? When Julienne is afraid of a cartoon giant crushing our house or carrying her away, I can respond by saying something like, “Sweetheart, giants aren’t real: they’re just characters in stories. You don’t need to worry about that. Go back to sleep.” Or when she is concerned about the incendiary ramifications of a passing dragon’s exhalations, I can counter, “Dragons don’t really exist, honey. You don’t need to be afraid of dragons.” This is what many parents do in similar circumstances, and it may often be the best course of action.
But is it always? Is it possible we’re actually doing them a disservice in the long run? Here’s what I mean: The “It’s not real” argument may certainly work when used in reference to a dragon, an ogre, a giant, or a witch. But it will not work when used to combat the real fears of pain, loss, heartbreak, loneliness, betrayal, and sin. So would it be valuable for parents of young children, like myself, to consider an alternative strategy for dealing with our children’s current fears, in the hope that it will translate into habitual practice of handling fear throughout their lives?
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