Decoding the thoughts and emotions of children isn’t rocket science…but it certainly feels like it. That’s why we were thrilled to hear from Aliza Pressman, Ph.D., on a recent episode of the hit family podcast Mom Brain, hosted by Daphne Oz and Hilaria Baldwin. Pressman is a developmental psychologist, podcast host (check out Raising Good Humans) and the cofounding director of the Mount Sinai Parenting Center. Here, she talks about the biggest fear lurking in your child’s closet—and how to troubleshoot the emotional hurdles children face every day.
Here’s How to Help a Child Get Over Her Fear of Monsters
1. Always Validate Their Feelings, Even When It Invites Mom Guilt.
Hilaria Baldwin: I recently made the mistake of going to the playground with my kids, but I had to work because it was a Tuesday. At one point, I left to have a professional phone call and I didn’t realize they could see me. When I went back, my daughter, Carmen, who’s 6, was screaming at me and telling me I’m not being a good mommy because I’m not paying attention to them. Then it was about how I hold her brothers’ hands tighter than I hold hers. The mom guilt is real. And what I give is never enough.
Aliza Pressman: When those things happen, try to reframe the moment to just acknowledge how they’re feeling without apologizing for having to work or having to go to the bathroom or not be present 24/7. Instead, just say, “You really feel like I hold your brothers’ hands tighter. That must hurt your feelings.”
Baldwin: But then do you let her live in a reality that’s not true?
Pressman: It’s about opening the door for her to say more. If she doesn’t and she’s just like, “Yeah, I feel that way,” then you can say, “I can think of examples where I imagine I just want to be held so tight and it feels like other people are getting held tighter. But you know I love you all the same and when I’m holding you, that’s how I hold you. It’s not about tight or not tight—but thank you for telling me how you’re feeling.”
Remember, it’s not a rational feeling for them. But they need you to have authentic, true empathy, not a “too bad for you, I’m sorry you’re feeling that way.”
Baldwin: My parents once or twice said to me, “I know you think you feel that way.”
Pressman: That would drive me crazy. I always say to my kids, “All feelings are welcome; all behaviors are not.” Don’t tell somebody they think they feel something. They can feel upset that Mommy’s on the phone, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be on the phone.
2. Never Tell Them Monsters Aren’t Real.
Baldwin: When kids are grappling with their emotions, how do you give them perspective? Can you say, “Well, you’re X age right now, and I know that this feels really important at this age, but it’s not going to be when you’re older”?
Pressman: You can’t, because it’s like telling a child who’s afraid of something, “You don’t need to be afraid of that. Monsters aren’t real.”
Daphne Oz: It’s not a rational fear.
Pressman: Right. First of all, it doesn’t work. I don’t know if you guys have ever been anxious about something irrational, but I certainly have been—
Oz: “Don’t worry about your presentation. Just don’t think about it.” It’s like, “Thanks for that!” I will be sure to never come to you again when I’m feeling anxious about something.
Pressman: And that’s the message to your kids when you say, “You think that’s a big deal? Wait until you get to X. Then you’ll really be scared.” It’s the same thing as when you say to new moms, “Oh, I miss the baby time. It was so easy.” Not a cool thing to say. So the message to your kids when you say “You didn’t see that monster” is “Note to self: Don’t tell Mom.”
Oz: We had a “magic spray” that we used to get rid of monsters. But at the same time, it’s confusing—because if it’s not real, then why do I need to protect them?
Pressman: This one’s tricky and here’s why: There are different ages where your brain develops and allows you to believe certain things in different ways. And we give mixed messages. Like, you have a tooth fairy and Santa Claus. And if good people can creep into your house, why can’t bad people? So when they’re younger, it’s OK to validate their fears: “You’re so scared. It’s OK! I don’t allow monsters in the house. We have a no-monster policy.”You can use the spray.
But as kids get older, you can say, “Tell me about this monster,” and then I think you can add, “When they’re scared of monsters, I also get scared—and for me a monster means something different, because I know there aren’t real monsters.
Other tactics to try: You can put a “no monsters allowed” sign on the door. You can ask her to draw it for you. You can see if she can make silly faces on the monster in order to make him less scary. Then, sometime when she’s not flooded with stress, you explain that while monsters aren’t real, [they are a good way to express creativity]. Open up one of her books and say, “Well, that person thought about monsters so much, they made a children’s book out of it! And look at all these beautiful illustrations! Maybe we can make a book about monsters and put your monster in the book.” You can build on their fantasy and let them have these fantastic thoughts, but the point is to acknowledge their fear.
3. Don’t Freak Out If Your Kids Don’t Like School.
Baldwin: As a parent, it’s hard to acknowledge that when you put your kids in certain [school] environments, it might not work because it is so rigorous that it’s causing them pain and stress. Then you wonder—no matter how great the education is—is it just damaging to your kid?
Pressman: You have to be able to see your child for who they are so that you can choose the right educational environment. On the other hand, it’s also about figuring out how you can sit comfortably when they’re distressed, because the truth is they don’t always have to enjoy themselves, especially in school. After all—especially as they get older—there are going to be times when school isn’t fun. That’s appropriate. It’s the difference between it’s not fun and it’s actually causing so much stress that their brain can’t learn.
For example, they might not always feel like doing homework, and it might be useful to time it in a particular way where they have scheduled breaks so that it isn’t just constantly burdensome. That’s a good way to develop work habits and tools.
We have this thing where it’s “Go upstairs and do your homework and don’t come down until it’s done,” and that is such an inefficient way of getting kids to love learning and it’s very unforgiving of different styles of learning. Of course, you want to standardize things, but often that forces people who are outliers into this really compact little box that doesn’t take variance into account.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. For more from Aliza Pressman, M.A., Ph.D., listen to her recent appearance on our podcast, 'Mom Brain,' with Hilaria Baldwin and Daphne Oz and subscribe now.