Fairies and Monsters and Ghosts, Oh My!

Nighttime fears of children linked to difficulty separating reality from fantasy

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Being afraid of the dark or a bogeyman in the closet is common for young children. But that doesn't make it easier on parents dealing with frightened kids. The secret is for parents to understand why kids get scared and to use it to their advantage.

A recent study found that children have more nighttime fears if they have trouble separating reality from fantasy. Using their imaginations for good can help them deal with fear at night.

"Encourage children to imagine good things."

The study, led by Tamar Zisenwine, an MA student, and Avi Sadeh, a professor, at Tel Aviv University's School of Psychological Sciences. The researchers compared 80 children who had severe fears at night with 32 children who did not have nighttime fears. The children were all aged 4 to 6.

The children and their parents were first surveyed to determine whether the kids had nighttime fears and how bad they were. Nighttime fears could range from fear of the darkness or sleep to being afraid to be apart from their parents to having nightmares.

Then the children were shown images or asked questions about either real situations or creatures or else imaginary ones that could not occur in real life. For example, the children were asked questions about a fairy, a monster and Bob the Builder to determine the extent to which the children believed each of these was real.

The kids were asked whether they could speak to these creatures on the phone or meet them in person.

The researchers found that the children who were least capable of distinguishing between fantasy and reality were the ones who were most likely to have nighttime fears.The younger the children were, the more likely they would have difficulty telling reality from fantasy. The children under age 5 in particular had more nighttime fears and fears in general that were associated with their difficulty separating fact from fiction.

However, Dr. Sadeh points out that parents can use their children's imagination to their advantage in helping children deal with nighttime fears.

If they can help children perceive "monsters" as not being threatening, or encourage the child to "help" something, such as a stuffed animal, not feel scared, it may help the child deal with their fears.

The study was published in the journal Child Psychiatry and Human Development. The research was funded by the Israel Science Foundation. The authors reported no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
November 19, 2012
Last Updated:
April 1, 2013