Child Nighttime Fears Result of Fantasy-Reality Confusion
November 14, 2012

Many Child Nighttime Fears Result From Confusion Of Reality And Fantasy

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

Most children experience nighttime fears at some point in their development, whether it is monsters under the bed or boogeymen in the closet. Most children outgrow these fears without professional help, but some contend with them for extended periods of time. For these children, experts say, there is a risk of developing anxiety problems later in life.

Professor Avi Sadeh of Tel Aviv University's School of Psychological Sciences is investigating how these fears fit into the normal developmental process and when they become a problem as part of a large-scale project on nighttime fears funded by the Israeli Science Foundation. Sadeh and his colleagues discovered that a child's ability to differentiate between fact and fiction has a huge impact on overcoming terror of things that go bump in the night.

Preschoolers with persistent nighttime fears are far less able to distinguish reality from fantasy compared to their peers without the fears, according to the study. The team hopes that their research will help parents and clinicians develop interventions that can better soothe the fears of fretful children. Sadeh also notes that a strong imagination can ultimately be used to the child's psychological advantage.

Bedtime can be a major challenge for a young child who is undergoing significant development in his or her ability to differentiate reality from fantasy. For some children, bedtime is the only time of the day when they are left to face their thoughts, feelings and fears alone, making it a prime time for imagination to run wild.

The research team evaluated children between the ages of four and six — 80 who experienced severe nighttime fears and 32 with more or less normal development — on their ability to separate fact from fiction in order to test their hypothesis that reality-fantasy confusion has a powerful impact on nighttime fears. They used both parental reports and a standardized interview.

For the experiment, the children were presented with the character of a fairy. The researchers then asked a series of questions to determine whether or not the fairy was fictional, including whether or not they could call the fairy on the phone, or if the fairy could visit them at home. The findings of this study have been published in the journal Child Psychiatry and Human Development.

They found that children with more intense nighttime fears were significantly less able to differentiate reality from fantasy, with younger children of the group scoring lower than older children, as expected. This age difference can be attributed to the children's developmental stage. The lower a child scored on the evaluations, the more severe the child's nighttime fears.

The fantasy-reality confusion that causes nighttime fears can also be used to help children to overcome these fears, Sadeh claims. The affinity for the imaginary can be used to the child's benefit by parents and clinicians.

"We send children mixed signals by telling them that monsters aren't real while we tell them stories about the tooth fairy," he explains.

Parents can't solve the problem simply by telling a child that their fear isn't realistic. Instead, Sadeh recommends using the child's strong imagination as a treatment. One possible treatment could be helping the child to view the imaginary monster as a non-threatening entity, perhaps by writing it a letter offering friendship or reading the child a book where a threatening figure turns out to be friendly.

Professor Sadeh has one treatment in particular that he finds highly effective — a toy called "huggy puppy." Children are presented with a stuffed dog and told that the once happy puppy is now sad and that they have the responsibility to be his friend. This responsibility includes caring for the puppy and making sure he is not afraid at night. This therapy depends on the child's willingness to believe huggy puppy's story, so it works best for children with stronger imaginations.