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I have two boys, one eleven, and one three. I don't know exactly how or when, but the 11-year-old has decided that it was a good idea to explain the the 3-year-old all about zombies. Of course he left out any meaningful discussions about death, and dying, and the fear thereof. The 3-year-old was already afraid of dying (a fear which he is steadily overcoming), and has now become much more attached-read clingy-and is afraid that zombies are going to get him. I have been a little on the fence with this one, where in some instances, I will go along with it as imaginative play, and he and I will go "Zombie Hunting", which seems to help him overcome the fear (and its fun), and in other circumstances, I feel compelled to tell him, "Zombies are not real, your brother is just trying to scare you, it's time to go to bed."

I know there is no meaningful way to explain to a three-year-old that monsters and zombies and the like reflect a human fear of death, and of supernatural/unexplained/misunderstood phenomena.

EDIT: adding details in response to anongoodnurse's question:

This has been continuing for 3-6 months, and occurs morning, noon, and night. There is a close association to darkness, but Zombies could be behind the curtains at breakfast, in the bathroom all day, in any unfamiliar place (or wherever the parents or groups of people are not) and yes they are almost always in dark places.

EDIT: Refining question. There are some excellent responses and great food for thought. I don't think the first part of the question has been addressed, though.

My question is two-fold:

Does this represent a fear of death/dying.

Put another way (and with more detail) could this type of fixation resolve to a more general fear of death (which was his preoccupation prior to this, and which he seems to have come to some sort of understanding) that might indicate he really hasn't gotten over his fear or misunderstanding of death?

Regardless of the answer to the first part, How or should I even try to convince him that zombies aren't real?

In response to answers and comments, and after some reflection, I don't think it is practical to try stopping him from engaging in the imaginative play "zombie hunting". Additionally, I have concerns about confusion arising from engaging him in this type of play while also stating that zombies aren't real. However, isn't the basis of imaginative play entertaining thoughts of things we know don't exist? (I think I have a new question brewing)

This part of the question then becomes, how can I best support him overcome this fear?

  • Great question! How long has this been going on? Is this primarily a nighttime fear? – anongoodnurse Jul 15 '15 at 7:49
  • Remind him zombies are very slow and they make noises. They don't plan or stalk so their tactical approach would be pitiful. That's why they're always the first thing you face at the beginning of the game and when you slaughter them only 3 gold comes out. Least that's what I told my kids. They've moved on from zombies to goblins now but I remind them goblins are also loud so you would hear them long before they ever saw you. I don't worry about explaining real or made up to them at this point. I just stress not making a big deal of it. – Kai Qing Jul 15 '15 at 21:18
  • The best defense against zombies is a good offense. Perhaps you can emphasize that zombies are just a game or pretend, and relate it to another example. For my son, we explain that certain things aren't real, just cartoons or toys like Iron Man or Captain America. Does saying "Your brother is just trying to scare you." help at all? I wonder if this wording reinforces the idea that zombies are a scary thing, and not make-believe. – user11394 Jul 15 '15 at 23:24
  • I can sympathize. Zombies are among my least favorite pop-culture trends ever, but both my children seem to find them endlessly entertaining... – Chris Sunami Jul 16 '15 at 14:55
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in other circumstances, I feel compelled to tell him, "Zombies are not real, your brother is just trying to scare you, it's time to go to bed."

Second part first.

Yes, you should try to convince him that zombies aren't real, but it probably won't take. It certainly doesn't hurt to try.

It doesn't matter what he's afraid of (the monster under my bed was mine), he appears to be genuinely concerned. It's irrational (a 3 year old is limited rationally anyway), any it causes him some psychic pain. It's fantastic that you're willing to zombie-hunt with him; it's a great way to make him feel cherished and respected. He's a fortunate little boy.

Are you reinforcing the fantasy by playing at zombie hunting? Not unless you're afraid of them, too. Start with a gentle reminder that zombies aren't real, and that this is a pretend activity, even though it's real enough to him. What matters is that you are listening and responding to his fears. (I would avoid the words "if they were real". They aren't, they never will be, but the stories about them are real. In the stories, they are dull and stupid. In the stories, they can't run or hide. He can do all of these things. He is faster than the zombies in the stories.)

As others have said, the best thing you can do is to empower him in whatever way he's inclined: intellectually, emotionally, physically.

Intellectually, I would start explaining real, rational fears in days gone by (deadly creatures in the dark), and how people coped (fears became stories, legends, and begat superstitions). It might be fun to read about how certain superstitions came about (powerlessness is uncomfortable. In situations of powerlessness, people have sometimes turned to superstitions to give them a semblance of control: lucky horseshoes, four-leaf clovers, knocking on wood, throwing salt over one's left shoulder, etc.) The gods and monsters of Ancient Greece became constellations. Thursday (Thor's day) was named after the protector God Thor.

Explore other unreal things that aren't scarey. like unicorns, fairies, trolls (only under wooden bridges please). Familiarize him with the concept of pure fantasy (Strega Nona's pot, in the wrong hands, covers a village in spaghetti.) Involve him in possible problem-solving scenarios ("What could you do in a story to keep yourself safe from zombies. It's your story...")

Emotionally, give him a wide emotional vocabulary; if he can name an emotion, he can begin to cope with it. In addition to what is suggested in other answers, hug him. Hold him sometimes during your hunts. Physical tough has been found to help reduce children's anxiety. Talk to him about how it's normal to be afraid of some things, and tell him what you and Mommy were afraid of as little kids, being sure to point out that it never came true. Provide a night light. Leave doors open. Make sure he's getting enough sleep. Make sure he's provided with interesting things to do during the day to distract him.

Physically, promote and praise self-control and the acquisition of skill sets (praise process, not product). If he learns that he can acquire abilities just by applying himself, he will feel more independent and confident about himself. Give him a soft, cuddly stuffed animal he can take with him when he walks around the house alone. Encourage him to hug his animal when he's feeling doubtful. It doesn't seem to make any difference in Huggy-Puppy Intervention studies whether you tell him his animal is a zombie butt-kicker or just a good friend to remind him he doesn't need to be afraid; both stories seem to work equally well.

Does this represent a fear of death/dying?

Probably not. Children turn everyday fears into monsters. A parent who yells a lot can cause a monster in the closet (both make him feel afraid.) A serious illness in a parent can cause a fear of kidnappers. A bully in kindergarten turns into an obsession with Pokémon. A scary neighbor's dog becomes the docile imaginary friend Laughing Tiger. The imagination is a place where kids handle their everyday (not deep, adult, profound) fears.

Great question. Thanks for asking it.

The Magical Years: Understanding and Handling the Problems of Early Childhood By Selma H. Fraiberg <- First chapter was free for me here. After submitting my answer, I checked the link and it wasn't the whole chapter. :( Try Amazon/other booksellers as well. It's worth the read.
Assessment of brief interventions for nighttime fears in preschool children.

  • The Huggy-Pupper study is fascinating! I'd never heard of that line of research before. Thanks for the share. – user11394 Jul 16 '15 at 19:40
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I think this depends on the child. For my older son (also 3, and recently went through a Ghosts stage), who's fairly intelligent and straightforward, I would approach this intellectually.

I would certainly not be inconsistent about it, whatever you do. If you're alternating "playing zombie" with "zombies aren't real", you're going to confuse him; while 3 is old enough to have some concept of fiction versus reality, it's not the same as an adult or older child.

If you're going to play zombies, make sure you're clear that zombies aren't real, and that you're just playing - and honestly I would avoid doing even that, unless that's going to be your primary approach (in which case, stick with it and don't go with the 'zombies are not real' bit).

Approaching it intellectually, zombies are actually far less bad than many other alternatives. Let's stick with the most common zombie mythos (as there are lots of kinds): slow, stupid zombies who want to eat your braaaaains.

  • Zombies are not hiding in dark areas. Zombies are stupid. They would be out in the middle of the street if they existed. So you don't have to worry about them being under the bed or behind the curtain - just in the street outside.
  • If zombies existed, we'd know about it. Hopefully your three year old is not so intelligent to know about government conspiracy theories... but in general, if there were zombies out there eating people's brains, they'd not be smart enough to cover it up - so you'd have front page news material.
  • Zombies are slow. So, a three year old should have no problem running away from them, if they did exist. They're not really something to be very scared of, unless there were a lot of them. One or two zombies - nothing to worry about.

Keep that up for a while. Hopefully the intellectual parts will get through to him. He's really conflating ghosts, zombies, and a few other monsters probably - but since he calls them zombies, focus on that.

If he still is worried about zombies, even though we've proven they don't exist, let's get a plan. Kids do better when they have the tools to deal with an issue.

  • Check google/newspaper for zombie evidence.
  • Look outside window at street for zombies.
  • Have zombie hammer (a toy hammer will do nicely) to defend himself
  • Learn martial arts (go take a Tae Kwon Do class, for example) to better prepare
  • Stand behind older brother, who clearly knows what he's doing, in an actual zombie outbreak

I don't mean to pretend zombies are real in this - although this also goes along with that approach. I mean prepare him by saying "Zombies aren't real. But if somehow zombies came to exist, by some accident in a lab or whatever, we can be prepared for how to deal with them." That way he feels confident that zombies aren't a problem.

  • I think my lack of commitment to one or the other approach stems from there being both intellectual and emotional components here. He is quite intelligent and unusually articulate/highly verbal with a strong vocabulary, so, when he is reasonably calm he can be reasoned with easily. When he is upset (emotional), he is almost inconsolable. So the question for me becomes how to balance imaginative play (for confidence/emotional stability) with the understanding that it is just so - imaginary- and not real (intellectual/understanding that zombies really aren't hiding/lurking around? – zugzwang Jul 15 '15 at 16:09
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    That sounds just like my three year old. What works for us when he's inconsolable is to engage the rational part of his mind - back to the intellectual side, basically. – Joe Jul 15 '15 at 16:10
  • That actually makes quite a bit of sense. Reflecting on moments when he in such a state, catching his attention with a question or line of reasoning does seem to immediately calm him when he latches onto it, and I think I will be more deliberate and proactive about this. However, I think the bigger question (I will add clarification to my original question- or post a new one when I am not supposed to be working) is how to balance the intellectual and social in this particular situation? Should I even try? – zugzwang Jul 15 '15 at 16:32
  • I think my answer is intended to apply to that, actually... and the answer is to focus on the intellectual, or the social, but not both. For my child it's intellectual that would work, even when he is apparently inconsolable. – Joe Jul 15 '15 at 16:41
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    He prefers to shoot them, anyway. He has a gun (wooden dowel), one end of which contains a blade (more like a chainsaw by the noises he makes) and the other which emits a flame to dispose of the remains. I am pretty sure he gets a lot of this from his older brother. In any case, I think the fantasy part of it is inescapable at this point, so I am probably going to have to accommodate it to some degree. – zugzwang Jul 16 '15 at 0:28
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I'm not sure that telling him that they aren't real is going to make him feel any better, because to him it is scary and might as well be real. The best thing you can do for him is help him feel empowered against the zombies. Let him know that you will always protect him from zombies and that he doesn't have to worry. As long as you are around he will be safe.

But what if you aren't around? Well, I've heard a little known secret that zombies are actually terrified of little boys who make scary faces and shout "ooogaboogabooga". Any zombie in the area will run away and leave such scary children alone. (The same source of this information also states that zombies are terrified of anything you want to make up to help your child feel like he can deal with the zombies, ghosts or whatever on his own, just in case :P).

2

I don't think there's an issue with pretending to hunt something that doesn't exist. You could pretend to be a wizard hunting dragons, for example.

Tell him that people made up the idea of zombies, like other scary things, because they like the shivery feeling of being scared when they're actually perfectly safe -- and also because it can be fun to go hunting the thing that is scaring you. Tell him a lot of older kids and grown-ups feel that way -- which is why there are a lot of scary movies that grown-ups watch -- but sometimes younger kids do, too. Tell him that's why some people pay money to go on roller coasters, scream in terror the whole way around, then get back in line to do it again!

Tell him, "If you want to play zombies, it's okay as long as it's fun, but if you start to get too scared, I'm going to stop you, because it's my job to protect you and I don't want you to get too scared." Tell him it's okay when he's scared to come for a hug, because that's one of the things parents are for.

Also, tell him if zombies were real, you would definitely protect him from them.

I wouldn't have thought the zombie thing represents a fear of dying any more than being afraid there's an alligator under the bed or a monster in the closet that's going to get him represents a fear of dying. I think it's just fear.

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I was worried about 'ghosts', in stories and Halloween, with my boys. I'd rather have completely avoided it, so these silly ideas would stop persisting in our culture and scaring sensitive kids (although in hindsight they may serve some kind of playful-toughening purpose).

Ghosts came up in Curious George and Thomas etc, so I focused on it being more like a character, or costume. I would edit stories a bit so that people in stories weren't afraid of Curious George dressed as a ghost. So, this is what a ghost is, it's someone in a sheet, now run because they're coming to 'get you'. Hope for giggles and excitement.

So I wonder if in your case you can take back zombies (ie redefine the idea on your terms). Remember by discussing the mechanics of what a zombie 'really is' (undead), you really lend credulity to the concept, so avoid that because I don't think a 3yo can handle it. Better I think to just say; "I'm being a zombie, I want to eat your brains/tummy/legs", walk around like a dummy for a bit (the fun of zombies is that they're slow but persistent, right).

Also, if you join in the zombie game (maybe when 11yo is away), perhaps being extremely gentle, it will help. When my youngest was 3 he liked imagination games until they got to ANY kind of peril, so I would try to skirt the line between excitement and fear.

Overall I'm trying to say that shunning zombies is probably worse than adopting or co-opting it for your purposes.

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The Coping Cat could be a helpful resource for this, even though the target age is a little higher (7-13). The main objectives of it are:

  • Recognizing and understanding emotional and physical reactions to anxiety
  • Clarifying thoughts and feelings in anxious situations
  • Developing plans for effective coping
  • Evaluating performance and giving self-reinforcement

http://www.cebc4cw.org/program/coping-cat/detailed

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