Once I surprised 2-year-old Drew and Claire with a four-foot-high giraffe piñata. In what I thought was a clever move, I crept around the side of the house and held up the giraffe so it seemed to be walking by the window. The kids shrieked, but not with delight.
What seems blatantly unreal to us -- a four-foot-high giraffe piñata -- is often startling, confusing, and frightening to young children. Even if they don't think the giraffe is real, that fact offers no consolation. Knowledge is swamped by a flood of emotion and becomes irrelevant. After all, we've asked them to believe in Santa Claus (and they do, bless their little hearts), so how surprising is it that they could believe in ferocious herbivores?
Particularly in the dark of night, thinking about a monster can be just as unsettling as seeing something frightening. "Some children are straightforward and rational," says Paul Harris, Ph.D., author of The Work of the Imagination. "Others allow their fantasies to run away with them."
Harris remembers when his 7-year-old son had trouble going to sleep because he was conjuring up images of spiders. "I told him, 'I'm certain there are no tarantulas in this house,'" says Harris. His son wasn't reassured, so Harris tried another tack.
"I asked him, 'Is it because when you think about tarantulas they're scary?' and he said, 'Yes, that's it.'" Talking about the scary image may help it to dissipate. Similarly, it's often hard for young kids to believe that a friend in a costume is still a friend. Dressed in a skeleton outfit, with gloves and a head mask, 6-year-old Ethan Sieben of Chicago didn't look like Ethan anymore. Scared, his 2-year-old sister, Kyra, ran to mom Amy for comfort.
Kyra needs to grapple with separating what's real from what she sees, explains Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., coauthor of Einstein Never Used Flashcards. Is it the mask that defines this person, or is it the face and voice and personality that are underneath the mask?
This sophisticated line of thinking is usually out of the realm of toddlers, Hirsh-Pasek says. Once kids have the memory and experience to understand that things aren't always as they appear, usually by age 5, costume transformations aren't as frightening. In the meantime, keep the masks off as much as possible and let your child watch as big brother puts the mask on and takes it off.
Other ways to fight fright:
Problem-solve. Explaining that monsters don't exist probably won't make much of a difference. Instead, tell your child you get how he feels, and help him come up with ways to defeat the monster. Ask him what might work. A "No Monsters" sign? A nightlight?
Read something scary together. Encountering bad guys in a book can allow a child to explore his fear. Try Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. "Convey that you're not anxious, and that you're quite confident the book is not going to scare them," says Frances Stott, Ph.D., professor of child development at the Erikson Institute, a Chicago graduate school.
Make it go away. If your child begs to leave a scary movie, do. Staying longer won't help him "get over" his fear. "A child learns to be brave by feeling safe," says Stott. Same with a book that scares him -- hide it or give it away.