There’s a Nightmare in my Closet


Talking about a child’s fears is tricky, but sometimes it’s the only solution.

Not many parents will forget December 14, 2012. A lot of parents wondered if they should talk with their children about what happened at Sandy Hook, and with good reason. Talking about fears is one of the best ways to cope with them. On the other hand, you don’t want to scare your child. Which brings me to today’s topic: children’s fears and what we as parents can do to help our children cope with their fears.

Children’s are Afraid

Let’s face it: the world is a scary place. It’s probably a lot scarier when you are 3 feet tall and can’t really see over the kitchen counter. There are a lot of places you don’t know and sometimes things happen that you don’t understand. There’s a tool used to survey children’s fears (we are talking about somewhat older children, grades 2-12). In the 1990s, Dr. Joy J. Burnham published a list of the most popular fears among children and adolescents. In first place was AIDS, followed by various ways of dying (choking, falling, being hit by a car) and violence (being kidnapped and being threatened with a gun). In 2009, she added some fears to the top list, including terrorist attacks, gun violence (shootings, drive-by shootings), and natural disasters, all of which – she claims – are generated mostly by contemporary media exposure.

Should We Talk About It?

When I was a little girl, we had a book called “There’s a Nightmare in my Closet”. That book got me pretty scared. As a developmental psychology student, I thought to myself, why would anyone EVER want to read that story to a child?

But, of course, our kids teach us new things all the time. My 3-year-old son is currently in love with a story about a boy who goes around the house on his dad’s back, being a “bag of flower” (it’s in Hebrew, so the phrases may not be quite right in English, but I tried to keep to the original text as much as I could). Dad offers all sorts of objects to “buy” his “bag of flower”: the sleepers, the piano, the teapot, etc. And each time dad jumps back at the last minute and keeps the bag of flower for himself, until they reach mom and she buys the bag of flower and tucks him in. The objects in the story are portrayed as scary things that want to eat the bag of flower. So this is a rather scary story for a 3-year-old.

It took me a while to figure out why he loves this story so much. This story is not really about the scary objects. It’s about how dad keeps the boy safe from all those scary things. I think that’s a major point when talking about fears (and reading books about fears, and watching movies where the hero is afraid but deals with his/her fear, etc.): your parents can keep you safe. Of course, we can’t always keep them safe. But they should think that we could, especially when they are young.

What Else Can We Do?

I read one research discussing how children feel better if they have an active role in coping with fears. That is, the child needs to feel in control. And that makes sense: we fear the things we don’t know and can’t control. If we know more about what we fear, and we feel like we have some power over it (not necessarily to prevent it but to deal with it), we are less afraid.

I know this has been rather long, and I apologize. I have been thinking a lot about this issue in the last month. One last point I’d like to make is that I think it’s vitally important that, as parents, we separate our fears from our children’s fears. We may be afraid that they are not safe in the big world, that we can’t protect them. However, for most young children, the fear that their parents can’t protect them doesn’t even cross their minds. So we would be wise not to put it there.


What about you? What are your children afraid of? What did you fear when you were a child?

@2015 - Gal Podjarny