My son is scared of killer dragons and monsters at bedtime
His fears are genuine as he can look terrified when he thinks about the imagery
Lots of young children develop fears and worries that are related to the childhood stories they hear and the the images they witness on television
Question: My five-year-old son has recently become scared and worried at bedtime. His fears are relating to imagery including killer dragons, monsters, etc . . . and also an image from the movie the Frog Prince. He found this particularly distressing as the image was so real as it portrayed a real person dressed up with a frog’s head.
I find the methods I used to reassure my older daughter when she was scared do not work as well with him. His fears only begin at bedtime and are genuine as he can look terrified when he thinks about the imagery.
I am wondering if you have any ideas how best to approach this?
Answer: Lots of young children develop fears and worries that are related to the childhood stories they hear and the the images they witness on television. Almost all these children have vivid imaginations whereby they can picture these images in full audio visual detail. Even simple childhood stories and films like the Frog Prince can provide an imaginative child with worrying images that can trouble them.
It is also normal for these fears to peak at bedtime, when children are going to bed alone in the dark and when they might normally find it hard to sleep alone. Also night-time can be a time when children and indeed adults ruminate about the day’s stresses and worries. Sometimes, these fears and worries can interfere with children getting to sleep or getting back to sleep at night if they wake up.
Helping your son
As you have discovered different approaches to managing fears work for different children. The logical approach of challenging the reality of such fears worked for your older daughter though your son might need a different approach. It strikes me that he might needs some help managing his imagination and learning to relax himself. Lots of children might accept that a monster is not real (and not under their bed!) but they can’t control their imagination that visualises this happening in great detail. The next time your son expresses some fears, you could try the following steps to help him.
Listen carefully: First get him to describe the fear in detail. Gently enquire “what are you imagining?” and “what are you thinking”. As you listen, your tone of voice is very important. You don’t want to come across as dismissive (oh, that is silly) or anxious yourself (why are you worried about that?). Instead, your tone should be warm and inquisitive. It will help him to describe the fears and images in words and to get them out of his mind – this will help him feel better.
Acknowledge his feelings: As you listen you want to acknowledge both his fearful feelings and the reality of his fears – “Even though monsters aren’t real, it can be scary when you think of them like that” or “sometimes things on TV can appear scary, when you think about them later”.
Identify his strength: When supporting children with anxiety, I always point out the strength of their worries. The fact of your son’s fears reveals his great imagination, which unfortunately is employed against him in visualising something scary when it could be used in a positive opposite. For example, you might say to your son, “wow . . . you really have a great imagination . . . I wonder can you imagine something fun instead”.
Help him change what he imagines: Encourage your son to focus on something more relaxing in his imagination. For example, you could remind him of the nice parts of the movie with the scary image or how the movie ended well. Or you can ask him to imagine something else completely different such as thinking of a nice place you visited together. You can also use his imagination in creative ways to help him relax, for example by getting him to imagine that his teddy has super powers to protect him overnight or that he can put in an imaginary invisible protective cloak if needs one.
Help him change how he imagines the scary image: You can also try and help him change how imagines the scary image. For example, you could draw out a picture of the frog’s head image (or take a picture from a magazine), but put a silly expression on this face and make it look funny. Or you can pretend the head speaks in a squeaky voice that sounds ridiculous that makes your son laugh. Though this can take a little bit of practice, changing the small sensory details in visualising a scary memory is a powerful technique in therapy.
Create other relaxing rituals at night: As his fears occur mostly at night, creating a relaxing bedtime routine will help. For example, you might have a routine of playing quiet music, a cuddle and a bedtime story, a ritual of tucking in teddy, turning on a nightlight, etc. Experiment to find what works for you and your son. If your son find’s it hard to sleep without your presence, you can give him nice strategies such as cuddling teddy or putting his hand on his heart ( to remind him how much you love him). Once again, it is a case of experimenting and finding different things that work for your son.
Prevent him from seeing scary images: Given your son is sensitive to anxiety, it is a good idea to be extra cautious and to prevent him from watching movies or reading books that he might perceive as scary. This might include delaying him seeing some movies or programmes that are commonly viewed by children his own age. (He will be more able to watch these in a year or two when he becomes more emotionally mature).
Dr John Sharry is a Social Worker and Psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. He has published 14 books including Positive Parenting: Brining up responsible, well-behaved and happy children. See www.solutiontalk.ie.