Night terrors and bad dreams are common among young children, and a new study found that that some preschoolers who suffer from nighttime phobias have difficulty telling the difference between fantasy and reality.
Children are often said to be more sensitive, or “open,” to psychic and paranormal experiences. The idea is that there is wisdom in the ignorance and inexperience of youth and that adults rarely see entities or have such experiences because their minds have been closed off by logic and skepticism to the magic and wonder of the world. Or, to use another analogy, it’s like in Warner Bros. cartoons when Wile E. Coyote or Elmer Fudd walks off a cliff but doesn’t fall until they are told that they’re not on land.
The trope of supernaturally-sensitive children is staple of countless depictions in the media and popular culture. Ghosts and monsters usually make their presence known to young children. We see this in countless horror films such as “The Exorcist” (demons possess a young girl); “Poltergeist” (evil spirits contact a young girl through television static, causing her to famously announce their arrival with the creepy sing-song phrase “They’re heeere!”); and the film “Mama,” currently in theaters, which features two young sisters who communicate with an evil ghost the adults don’t see.
Real children reporting ghostly experiences (often at night) were also a staple of the popular, long-running television show “Unsolved Mysteries.” Though some parents were initially skeptical, they soon came to believe that their child’s accounts of seeing and interacting with ghosts and monsters were real and not merely imagination. “Why would a child make up something like that?” they often ask.
Of course children make up stories for any number of reasons, including seeking attention and avoiding punishment, and often for no reason at all. But new research suggests that some kids think their nightmares are completely real.
When a genuinely terrified and wide-awake child tells his mother or father that she saw a scary, shadowy man outside her door or window, there’s a good chance that they might take it seriously, especially if they are among the nearly 40 percent of Americans who believe in haunted houses. This, of course, only feeds and reinforces the child’s fears.
A new study may help explain why some kids report seeing imaginary monsters in real life.
It involved 80 children between four and six who experienced severe nighttime fears and compared them to 32 children who did not. The researchers assessed the children’s fears, using reports from both the kids and their parents. Children viewed images of imaginary figures (such as fairies or Bob the Builder) and were asked whether they could occur in real life, for example, could they go visit a fairy in person. The study found that children with nighttime fears demonstrated more fantasy-reality confusion than the control group (those without fears) and those fears were more dramatic in the younger children.
The more children understood the difference between fantasy and reality, the less fearful they were.
The study also found “that children with nighttime fears suffer from higher levels of general fears and more behavior problems… thus suggesting that nighttime fears may reflect a broader vulnerability to general fears, anxiety and internalizing disorders” and that “a less developed ability to distinguish fantasy from reality may contribute to the emergence and persistence of children’s fears… . Children’s uncertainty regarding the existence of magical entities such as witches, ghosts and monsters may generate and maintain fears of these creatures.”
The study, “Nighttime Fears and Fantasy–Reality Differentiation in Preschool Children,” conducted by researchers Tamar Zisenwine, Michal Kaplan, Jonathan Kushnir, and Avi Sadeh, appears in the February 2013 Child Psychiatry & Human Development journal.
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