5

Some time ago, my daughter (5 1/2 y/o) started telling us, that she has "scary thoughts" about animals that frighten her. She's talking about king cobra's, weasels (we have a book about an evil weasel), sometimes mongooses. It also used to be witches and dragons in the past, but at the moments it's exclusively animals.

She is aware that these are only thoughts, but still is scared. She told us, that when she is "bitten" by them, she's got thought bites or dream bites that hurt the next day. Some days it's virtually all the time, on other days it's more like several times a day.

We have tried to give her some tools to handle the thoughts like introducing stories of imagined swords to fight the dragons or magical wands, making her monster spray or starting to play that we turn into those animals, too, which would make us invulnerable. These usually work short-term, but then she invents stories why they would not work anymore.

I know that the age between 5 and 6 can be straining. She's also undergone further changes, that has effects on how she handles conflicts and feelings of frustration. It's quite possible that all of that is interconnected, but at the moment I am looking for strategies to make it easier for her to handle those fears.

  • Any ideas about the possible sources of the past and current animals and imaginary characters? The evil weasel comes from a book that you have, as you mentioned. What about the rest? Books at home / at your family's home / at the library / at school? Movies, animation? Toys? Zoo? This would help answer the question. – Timur Shtatland Jan 8 at 15:49
  • I don't have a good answer, but I think you are doing all the right things. See also parenting.stackexchange.com/questions/23475/… – Paul Johnson Jan 8 at 16:48
  • @TimurShtatland The sources are quite different. Of course the dragons and witches are from stories, but usually the fantastic stories we read mostly have a twist (Princesses fighting or even impersonating the dragons, not-so-evil dragons, ...). The cobras an mongooses are from specialized non-fiction books (a bit like textbooks for children, but with more ease!?) or documentaries for children. – Paul Kertscher Jan 9 at 6:02
  • @PaulJohnson Thanks for the hint, I'll have a look at it. – Paul Kertscher Jan 9 at 6:03
7

It sounds like she is a girl with a great deal of imagination. She loves making up stories. This is a good thing. Encourage it!

I have an extremely active imagination. It made me afraid of so many things. I imagined monsters under the bed and in the closet. Things lurked in every shadow. Every movement of the trees, ever sound that I couldn't identify became transformed in my mind to something dangerous.

Eventually I taught myself how to harness the power of my imagination deliberately to protect myself. I remember vividly the day when I felt I had finally conquered my fears. I was thirteen years old. I walked out into the neighbor's orchard after dark, by myself, a thing that I knew would terrify me, and I made up a story. I was a person with magic inside me. I was hunting monsters. If any of them jumped out I was going to disintegrate them. It sounds childish to an adult, but it worked. I did that every night for a week, spending an hour walking through the trees in the dark, hunting monsters. Soon, the darkness became transformed for me. It became a place where I could feel powerful, not powerless.

Help your daughter learn how to harness the power of her imagination to protect herself. Reading books that other people have written is a wonderful social activity and it will add grist to the mill of her imagination, but what she needs to do is practice writing her own.

Here is a suggestion as to how you might help her.

Ask her if she would like to write a story with you. Start out with your protagonist. Make it a girl who she can identify with. Let her guide you; sometimes kids want to give protagonists their own names, sometimes they make them up. Then give your girl a power. It could be magic. It might be the power to make three wishes a day. Whatever it is, it needs to be effective against monsters. Then help her come up with an adventure. Where is she going? (down to the creek to catch minnows, to a friend's house, to explore the barn at Grandpa's house, etc). Then come up with a peril. Pick one of her fears and have it confront the protagonist. Guide her through using her "power" to vanquish the monster. Happy ending.

Part of the draw of this is that it is something you can do together. What child doesn't want more "mommy time"? Remember to guide this by asking leading questions, guiding her into creating the story herself, don't just make it up for her.

The second benefit is that by helping her to exercise the power of her own imagination on her behalf, you help her learn the tools she will need in order to take control of her imagination. The sooner she is able to do that the sooner she will be able to start getting control of her fears.

If you want to add a little flourish, put each story into a computer and print it out (or hand write it), staple any multiple pages together, and give it to her to keep on her bookshelf near her bed. Any time she want to remember how she vanquished the monster, she has it close at hand.

  • Thank you for your great answer, I'll definitely give it a try. (And if there are no other answers in a few days and I forgot to accept this one, please remind me, but I'd want to wait for some more answers before accepting this one.) – Paul Kertscher Jan 9 at 5:55
3

My daughter has gone through the same thing. We started reading books about the animals doing good things and the fear started going so I would try that.

  • Hi Izabella, welcome to SE! Your anecdote is pretty short and vague, could you either elaborate on what exact kind of books you read with your daughter, or maybe provide a source that says that this is a helpful method in reducing fear of animals in children? – OldBunny2800 Jan 9 at 3:06
  • How does that teach children to face and confront fears ? – MakorDal Jan 9 at 9:27
1

Have you considered speaking plainly and straight-forwardly to her about how these animals are only a part of her imagination, what her imagination is, and why she might be having these thoughts? A child having thoughts about potential danger is normal - it would cause her to make active attempts to avoid the danger.

Maybe she doesn't need fantasies about staving off the danger, but rather plain, and straight-forward language explaining to her that there is no danger, why she is imagining these things, and how much of what she imagines can't hurt her.

To be frank, I think this is a problem that people of any age are faced with. When we're adults, however, the problems are less imaginary and more real. But the coping mechanisms are the same - we need to realize that our brain is a story-teller, and that we don't have to give all of our attention to our thoughts, or believe our thoughts are true, just because we think them.

Easier said than done for a 5 year old of course, but this could be a way to get the ball rolling in your child's understanding of their thoughts.

If you want to know more I'd recommend reading The Happiness Trap, which is an introduction to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. It's a a very successful cognitive therapy which deals with our relationship with our thoughts and how to 'defuse' them.

Hope that helps.

-1

I recommend to prevent the new fears of (imaginary) animals or characters by filtering the source. Be more selective about what your child reads or watches.

She's talking about king cobras, weasels (we have a book about an evil weasel), sometimes mongooses. It also used to be witches and dragons in the past, but at the moments it's exclusively animals.

The sources are quite different. Of course the dragons and witches are from stories, but usually the fantastic stories we read mostly have a twist (Princesses fighting or even impersonating the dragons, not-so-evil dragons, ...). The cobras and mongooses are from specialized non-fiction books (a bit like textbooks for children, but with more ease!?) or documentaries for children.

Many common fairy tales and other fictional stories are pretty scary for children. As an adult, I find them about as funny and morbid as the "Darwin awards" real-life stories. Brothers Grimm stories are especially morbid. The series of misfortunes that befalls the characters there (cannibalism, poisonings, other miscellaneous killings, evil animals) can be quite gruesome. It may be also funny to adults, but not to kids. Various folk fairy tales are not much better. Who knows, maybe these fairy tales were early precursors to modern horror movies? In any case, I am not sure at which age the children can differentiate between the fictional and real-life characters. If the child believes that Santa Claus is real (as most 5 1/2 year-olds do), that suggests that the child may may consider witches and dragons real. There are plenty of fairy tales and other fictional stories that are not scary. Why not focus mostly on those?

Same goes for specialized non-fiction books or documentaries for children. Is it really necessary at this age to read or watch films about king cobras and mongooses? Some 5 1/2 year-olds may be unsure that there are no king cobras hunting in their house at night... Not all wildlife documentaries are created equal. Some can be scarier for children than others: 5 year old loved wildlife documentary but was very upset by dead animals . I recommend to select the ones that are less scary. Skip the more gruesome ones, with predation, realistically depicted deaths, etc, and focus on the milder ones.

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