my style has been to explain that there's really no such thing as ghosts or monsters, they're just stories and toys
I think you're already doing it right.
My wife's preference is to not even bother with theory, and just frame things in practical ways he understands: "The ghost lives in the shop with his ghost friends. It doesn't like sunlight and it's not going to come to our home."
The two of you need to get your stories straight - you need to agree an approach with each other. Just for you to flatly contradict one another is going to confuse him and potentially make things more scary.
It might help for you to talk it over with him in more detail. You might have to repeat the same message in different forms over a bunch of different occasions:
"Some people like to tell scary stories, but that doesn't mean they're real."
"If you don't like that kind of story, I won't tell you any of them. That's ok."
"That's just pretend. Those people are dressing up to play a game."
"We're not afraid of pretend XYZ's, are we? Let's practise telling them to go away: GO AWAY, SILLY POO-POO XYZ's!"
As in that last example, you can combine your approach (they're just fiction) with your wife's approach (within-story reasons why the scary things aren't a threat) by making up stories together with him - and emphasising that you're making up a story together and it's all just pretend and so on - and in the stories the ghosts are totally un-threatening: you and him together call them rude names (toilet humour is good here, because humour will make him less scared, and nothing is more humorous to a 3-year-old than bodily functions) and they run away scared of you. And then emphasising at the end that the whole thing is just a silly story and they don't exist and aren't real. That kind of approach can help him find the courage to not-be-scared even of things which he knows aren't real.
We've found these useful:
- "Thomas & Friends" episode on Halloween (book and TV episode both available),
- Angelina's Halloween (be warned - extremely charming illustrations).
Draw out his fears.
Encourage him to talk about the imaginary monster and ask him to draw a picture of what he thinks the monster looks like. This way you respect his feelings and convey that you empathize with him.
Don't chase the monster away.
An oft-advised fearbuster is for parent and child to walk into the bedroom, look under the bed and in the closet, and "chase the monster out of the bedroom." Not only is this downright dishonest, but all it does is reinforce to your child that there really is a monster in his bedroom—which might make matters worse.
Tell the truth.
Emphasize to your child that monsters are only pretend characters on TV or in storybooks. It's a parent's job to help her child separate real from imaginary characters.
If trick-or-treaters are a problem, I'd just send him off to bed early so he doesn't see them. Or if they come round too early for that, sit with him (in a room upstairs or at the back of the house) for an extra buch of stories or a movie or some kind of positive-attention activity you can do together.
if they're not real, why are you telling them to go away?
I know it sounds contradictory, but you really can marry up the two approaches.
To explain in a bit more detail: Telling them the truth (that the ghosts don't exist) is great intellectually but doesn't really deal with the emotional side of the issue.
So if you just say "they're not real" and then end the conversation at that - then it leaves the kid (potentially) still feeling scared. Even if they've believed you and they have truly internalised the fact that ghosts aren't real, they can still feel scared of them - in spite of knowing that they're not real.
Actually this is true of adults as well - plenty of adults feel scared of things which (intellectually) they know are really no threat to them at all - e.g. horror movies. With adults of course it's the "willing suspension of disbelief", but children (particularly small children) just have less control over their feelings in relation to stories. But it's not really very different from an adult identifying with the hero and disliking the villain in an action movie. Stories wouldn't be any fun if we weren't capable of responding emotionally to things which we know aren't real.
- The disadvantage of the truth-telling approach is that it doesn't allow you to really acknowledge the child's fear and allow them to work through it with you.
- The disadvantage of the "I'll chase away the ghost" approach is that it can give the message that ghosts are real.
Combining the two: while sticking with the fact that ghosts aren't real - you can allow the child to work through their fears by telling them stories in which the ghosts are ridiculous (and not scary at all) and the child and the parent work together to scare or humiliate the ghosts.
Your comment was that this seems inconsistent: if they're not real, then why are we telling them to go away?
The answer is that we're not "telling them to go away" in real life, as a technique for dealing with a real-life danger (in the way that crossing the road at the pedestrian crossing is a technique for dealing with the real-life danger of traffic).
Rather, we're "telling them to go away" within a story (and being very clear that it is just a story) in which the imaginary, fictional ghosts are:
- unthreatening, and
- easily defeated by the child with a bit of help from mum/dad.
So that gives the child a chance to work through some of the emotional impact of the ghosts, which an un-elaborated "ghosts aren't real" doesn't give them the chance to do.
It also allows the child a chance to practise (with a parent) what they can say to themselves if (in the middle of the night) the ghosts start to seem real to them again.
- Acknowledge the fear
- Let them know it’s normal to have fears
- Be reassuring
- Be playful in your approach to managing fears
- Try to empower the child through positive imaginings or fantasies
- Create pleasant associations
- Applaud bravery
- In new situations remind them about how they managed to overcome a fear last time
"Toddler Fears", Parentline Australia
^ The bold sections there (emphasis mine) are what I'm talking about.
At any age, break the challenge into small steps, says Chanksy. She suggests tackling that big, dark cave of a closet by turning it into something fun and positive. "By creating a competing emotion," she says, "you help burn out the anxiety." Be creative, says Chansky: Go into the dark and read a book by flashlight. Make five goofy faces, and get out right away. Play 20 questions. This all gets your child into a different frame of mind. Practice often, for the best results.
"Childhood Fears and Anxieties", WebMD
This "creating a competing emotion" can work really well.
What I'm trying to say is that telling them the truth (ghosts not real) is necessary but not sufficient. The child needs to work through the emotional component of their fear, which doesn't just go away when they realise that the fear is not founded in fact.
One way to help them work through that emotion is to tell stories together with your child, in which:
- positive emotions and associations (such as laughter and parental closeness and support) replace negative ones,
- the child exerts control and dominance over the fictional object of their fear, e.g. by scaring it or calling it rude names.