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Sugar Pills and Magic Kisses

When I was growing up, my family lived in a woodsy, isolated area. There were no houses on either side of us, and behind us were just acres of trees. My two sisters and I were convinced that the woods were full of bears that would sneak into our rooms at night. To help calm our nighttime anxieties, our mother sprinkled "bear powder" over our heads.

And it worked. We believed in the magic powder  -- and we believed in our mom.

What my mother did by intuition is what scientists have been intrigued by for decades: the placebo effect. The term "placebo" refers to the sugar pills given to patients during medical trials  -- researchers compare what happens if no drug is given to how the drug being tested works. They've found that a placebo can have an effect all its own. Tell someone she'll feel better if she takes a pill and she often will, even if it's a phony one.

The same goes for any kind of "fake" treatment. A person can even bring about a placebo effect: Studies have found that warm, reassuring doctors are better able to help people get well than cold, impersonal ones. The warm doctor may not be any more skilled than the cold one, but his patients respond better to his treatment because they like him.

Numerous studies have found that simply believing you'll feel better can lift depression, reduce pain, ease asthma attacks, and even make arthritic knees feel less creaky. Scientists don't know why, but whether a counterfeit cure works because it actually changes the way the brain works (as some research suggests) or simply because it's boosted by the power of suggestion, it still requires some faith in make-believe. That may be why kids, so quick to swallow that a chubby guy in a red suit can squeeze down a chimney, are so easily influenced by them. "To some extent, placebos are about the effect of the human imagination," says Ted Kaptchuk, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

And when they're administered by Mom or Dad or another beloved caregiver, they can be all the more potent. Ways for parents to enlist their child's imagination to dry a tear, ease an ouch, conquer a fear, and more:

Balms for bedtime
Nighttime can be scary. There are so many things to be afraid of in the dark  -- bad dreams, ogres under the bed, bears in the woods. A stuffed teddy or favorite blankie can go a long way toward easing those fears. So can powders and elixirs created to keep creepy intruders away.

Dana Sullivan of Reno, Nevada, taught Liam, 8, and Julia, 6, to say "Good night" to the monsters that the two believed lurked in their bedroom. "I told them that the only reason monsters are mean and scary is that no one is ever nice to them, but that if we said 'Good night' and 'Good morning' to them, they'd be happy." Sullivan reports that so far the nightly custom is working well.

Anastasia Rubino, 7, of New Jersey, rubs her stuffed bunny's ear with lavender balm each night before she goes to sleep. While lavender may indeed have mild calming properties, Anastasia's dad, Frank, believes it's the ritual that comforts her.

Lesley Alderman, the health editor of Real Simple, is the mom of a 2-year-old and stepmom of a 12-year-old.

Rx for boo-boos

A simple kiss can work wonders, especially for minor injuries like a scraped knee or wounded pride. "It's got more healing power than a whole hospital of doctors," says Valerie Fahey, a mom of two in Piedmont, California. "My seven-year-old might be shrieking his head off, but if I ask, 'Shall I kiss it?' and do, the tears stop."

When I got hurt as a child, my mother would snuggle with me in a big wooden rocking chair and tell me that the motion would slowly rock away the pain.

Anxiety busters
Jodi Kahn, a mother of two in Larchmont, New York, uses an old family ritual to help soothe her children's nerves before a big event: When Sam, 10, or Hannah, 7, needs to prepare for a big game or test, she rubs their batting arm, kickball leg, or writing hand and says the magic phrase:

Ish bibbly otten dotten
Bo-bo skadeetan dotten  --
SIS BOOM BA.

Kahn tells her kids that the magic rub will bring good luck. "Of course," she says, "the real effect is that they're distracted from their anxiety and leave the house with smiles on their faces."

When Anastasia Rubino's brother, Kolya, was 9, and was nervous about meeting someone new, he called in a superhero. He put his Spider-Man costume on under his clothes. "It made him feel confident," says his dad.

Stand-ins for Mom
When you can't be physically present for your child  -- you leave her with a sitter or at a birthday party  -- it can help to also leave behind a substitute to make the separation easier for her. Laura Broadwell, a single mom in Brooklyn, came up with a novel way to deal with her 3-year-old's anxiety when she started preschool. "Eleni would sob when I dropped her off," she says, "until one day when she was wearing a sweater with a big purple heart in front. I told her that when I left I would magically disappear through the heart and be with her all day long." From then on Eleni was much calmer at dropoff  -- and if she did get upset, a simple reminder that her mom could magically be with her all day, even if she wasn't wearing the special sweater, was all it took to calm her down.

Fear fighters
When Cathy Strauss's son, Max, was 8 years old, he came home from school and declared he wasn't going to go outside during recess because there were bees on the playground. Max was shy, and Strauss didn't want anything to come between him and the chance to play with other kids, so she took action. She peeled off the label from an old spray bottle, filled it with water, and wrote on the side "Bee B. Gone."

"This," she explained to Max, "is a special formula you spray on your skin every day. Bees hate it, and if they come near you, as soon as they smell it they'll fly away." Max was convinced. For the rest of the year he confidently went out on the playground, having spritzed himself with Bee B. Gone. And when he finally did get stung? "He came home from school and instead of busting me," Strauss says, "he said, 'Hey, Mom, that Bee B. Gone is old. We better get a new bottle.'"

Strauss's simple solution to her son's bee-itis did a beautiful job of calming his fear. It was also a testament to how much he believes in her. You can harness the power of your child's imagination in the same way  -- whether she's ill or nervous or scared. Just be sure that whatever concoction you come up with, you stir in three parts of love. It'll be guaranteed to work.

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