Every child passes through that stage of being afraid of monsters—under the bed, in dark corners, down in the basement—it seems to be a universal childhood fear. This fear can take root before a child is at an age when a parent can even reason with them and provide logical explanations, and even then, that assurance rarely seems to allay such deep-seated phobias. And some children’s fairy tales only serve to fan the fire—the witch in Hansel and Gretel who cooks children, the giant in Jack and Beanstalk who will “grind Jack’s bones to make his bread” or the big, bad wolf in The Three Little Pigs who is out to devour some piggies.
I’ve had these experiences with my own sons, and now predictably, my young grandson seems to be going through the same phase. This was made clear to me on a recent trip to the public library. Whenever we visit the library, I turn my grandson lose in the children’s section where he will often tuck himself away with a book that catches his interest. On this particular visit, I didn’t notice he had his nose in a book about monsters until he asked me to put it back because it was scaring him. As we walked home afterwards, I noticed he wouldn’t hold my hand. Any time I extended my hand to him, he shied away from me to the other side of the sidewalk. When I asked him what was wrong, he said he didn’t want to hold my hand because he was afraid I was going to turn into a monster. So I asked him: “You’ve known me seven years now, have I ever turned into a monster?” His answer? “I don’t think so, but sometimes you look pretty scary.”
How best to handle this touchy subject of childhood fears and phobias? In my own childhood, the prevailing approach by many parents at that time was a no-nonsense one—there are no such thing as monsters. Period. Simple as that. It was as if a child’s fears were not be “indulged.” I was raised with this approach and can attest that it did nothing other than cause me to feel ashamed and somehow inadequate. Although on one level, I trusted the word of my parents (that they wouldn’t lie to me), but their logic simply could not quell my fears. I still took the basement steps two at a time and insisted on my bedroom door being left open with the hall light on. My fear of the dark was so innate and so irrational that it overruled all common sense until I was well into my teens.
As a result, my approach with my own children was very different. Having been a victim of my own fears, I didn’t want to make my children feel bad about experiencing their own. So I listened, hugged and validated their concerns. I actually found it helpful to confess my own childhood fears to them as a way of illustrating that at some point, these anxieties which seem so overwhelming when we’re young, gradually lessen or fall away as we grow into adulthood. And yet, I also readily admitted to them that even in adulthood, I still have some fears I continue to grapple with.
I am pleased to see books in the public library that address the topic of childhood fears. I’ve read several stories with my young grandson that illustrate the mastering of a particular phobia. While reading these stories, I am quick to point out the accompanying feeling of accomplishment and pride the child experiences by the end of the book. Many of these books employ a well-trusted behavioural therapy technique in which children are gradually exposed to their fears in a safe, secure environment. Take the fear of spiders, for instance, yet another phobia of mine! Reading books together about spiders and their importance in our ecosystem might be a way to start addressing this fear. Having a child look at illustrations and photos, even gently encouraging them to touch those photos, can help to desensitize their fear.
Pointing out spiders in one’s outdoor environment and watching them build a web or collecting a spider in a bug box are some further ideas to help with desensitising. I am a firm believer that steps like this help make fears more manageable. Those fears may never be calmed, but at least we can develop coping skills that can serve us well later on in life.