What seems like an irrational fear to an adult, is often a very real possibility to a child. When I was 5 or 6-years old I developed an intense fear of Communists. I was attending St. Mary’s School in Beverly, Massachusetts, and the good Sisters of Notre Dame had more than a few stories to tell about Communists. I didn’t understand much of it, but I knew Communists were super bad and they were coming. With bombs. These were the duck and cover days, when school children practiced how to deflect a nuclear bomb by ducking under a desk and covering their heads. I was terrified.
My parents tried their best to reassure me I didn’t need to worry about Communists. Nothing they said made any difference. I was still scared witless.
One night, fear of an imminent Communist strike kept me from sleeping. After many futile attempts to assuage my fear, my father said if the Communists showed up at our door, they’d be sorry. He pulled his World War II Marine Corps uniform out of a foot locker, draped it across my bed, and told me if the Communists came, he’d take care of them. In that instant, the fear was gone. All I needed to know was the Communists would be dispatched.
Young children have a difficult time distinguishing reality from fantasy. It’s one of the reasons childhood is a magical moment in a person’s life. It’s why Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy enchant, and the Monster-Under-the-Bed terrifies.
Despite our best efforts, at different stages of their development, children are going to believe what they’re going to believe. I had a student years ago whose parents chose not to pass along the Santa Claus myth. They celebrated Christmas without presents, and kept the focus on the reason for the season. They told their child Santa Claus was just a story. He wasn’t real. Their child didn’t believe them for a minute. One day, shortly after the Christmas break, he confided to me that Santa was a very bad man because he brought presents to all the children except him.
You can’t reason away a firmly held childhood belief. If your 4-year old believes there’s a monster in the closet, s/he’s probably going to hold onto that belief in the face of all logic. One way you can reassure a child, is to read picture books addressing childhood fears and worries. You’ll find an extensive, although somewhat dated, list of such picture books in Children’s Books to Help Preschoolers Cope With Fears by Karen Stephens. (This particular illustration is from author/illustrator Mercer Mayer’s excellent book There’s a Nightmare in My Closet.)
For more information about childhood fears, check out Helping Children Overcome Fears by Giselle Goetze and Judith A. Myers-Walls of Purdue University and How to Help Kids Cope With Their Worries by Dr. Jamie Howard.