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Dr. Elaine Heffner: Ghosts and monsters

Dr. Elaine Heffner: Ghosts and monsters

Different kinds of ghosts and monsters frighten our children. Bedtime is a favorite for seeing monsters under the bed, or ghosts in the closet, making going to sleep impossible, and creating a need to have parents stay close by.

Danny Kaye, the comedian/actor had a song called, “Mommy, Gimme a Drink of Water,” Using a child’s voice he acts out all the devices children use to bring a parent back into the room after the final story and goodnight. The drink of water is a favorite, as well as needing to go potty. But being afraid of the ghosts and monsters in the room is a big one, leading the child to call out in a frightened voice.

Parents are sometimes dismissive of fears that seem merely a product of children’s imagination. But children are not comforted by the reassurance that the ghosts and monsters are not there. In her book, “The Magic Years,” Selma Fraiberg gives us insight into the minds of young children, when fantasy is more developed than logic and children believe that their thoughts and behavior make things happen in the outside world. In their magical thinking thoughts, behavior, and feelings are responsible for events around them.

As we know, children often have angry thoughts and wishes about their parents, who can seem frustrating and mean in their eyes. Children misbehave or do things of which their parents don’t approve. If something bad happens they may believe their behavior is responsible. It is not unusual for children to believe that unfortunate events are a punishment for “bad” thoughts or behavior. Children’s separation anxiety can be an expression of the fear that something may happen to the parent or to them unless the parent is close by — even a fear that their own impulses may break loose and wreak havoc.

The ghosts and monsters that children see are stand-ins for their own frightening thoughts, feelings and impulses. They are frightening because in children’s magical thinking they are responsible for the bad things that happen. The struggle with these monsters and ghosts reflect children’s inner struggle with their own forbidden wishes and the untamed impulses that often lead to unacceptable behavior.

A mother of a 3-year-old who has a new baby sister told me that she has let the older girl watch cartoons in order to nurse the baby undisturbed. Now the child has suddenly become afraid to go to sleep, saying the cartoon monster is under the bed. It seemed likely that the monster was a stand-in for her own angry feelings about mom nursing the baby, excluding her.

The fight against imagined ghosts and monsters is a psychological battle in which children seek the power of their parents to protect them. It is a struggle in which children fight to overcome the ghosts and monsters or at least hold them at bay. Their fears are real even though the reason they give for the fear may be imaginary. They need the reassurance that they have their parents’ support and will not be alone in their struggle.

In fact, parents are more powerful than the ghosts and monsters. It is with their help and support that children overcome destructive impulses and behavior. It is through an alliance with parents, the wish for their approval, that children are enabled to keep those impulses in check and to adopt parental standards for behavior.

More reassuring than trying to persuade children that there are no ghosts or monsters, is letting them know that they, their parents, will protect them and keep them safe from all those creatures.

— Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.

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