My 4-Year-Old Is Terrified of Monsters—I Asked a Childhood Therapist What to Do

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It’s a familiar scene to many parents come bedtime—every night before tucking my son into bed, I perform a “monster check” in his room. “No monsters under the bed, no monsters by the window, no monsters in the closet,” I say, in my most soothing voice. My 4-year-old, however, is unconvinced. He’ll bombard me with questions (“what if the monsters come in through the window? What if you can’t hear them?”), he’ll make plans to stay awake all night so that the monsters won’t come or he’ll cower under the covers. He’s terrified. Since my efforts to calm his fears have so far proven futile, I reached out to child therapist Jen Burke for their expert advice. Here’s what they had to say.

Meet the Expert

Jen Burke is a perinatal and early childhood therapist, working with children and adolescents to address wide-ranging concerns, including anxiety, mood disorders, relationship disruption and trauma. Jen has specialized training in Infant and Early Childhood mental health, working to support parents and children to form healthy secure attachment relationships. She works at Rise Wellness Collaborative in Ann Arbor, Michigan and has recently launched a new business Bloom and Rise, subscription parenting boxes, to complement her daily clinical efforts

Where Does the Fear of Monsters Come From?

“Children typically start to fear monsters around the age of 3 to 4 years old,” says Burke. “This fear often coincides with a child's growing imagination and cognitive development, as they become more aware of the world around them and start to distinguish between reality and fantasy.” But all children are different, she adds, so some children may be able to understand and verbalize this fear closer to age 2 while others may never develop a fear of monsters at all.

What *Not* to Do If Your Kid Is Afraid of Monsters

You know that your child’s fear of monsters is illogical, but to your child, this is serious business. As such, you never want to laugh off your kid’s concerns. “We want to make sure that kids feel understood and validated; laughing off their fear can make them feel invalidated and give them the sense that they should manage their feelings alone,” Burke explains. But that doesn’t mean you can’t lighten the mood a little—try to make monsters silly together, the therapist advises. “Ask them to draw the monster or imagine the monster doing something silly like roller skating or trying to surf, or ask them to imagine turning themselves into a superhero and defeating the monster.”

Similarly, Burke advises parents to never dismiss the fear (oops, guilty). “It is super normal to want to tell kids that monsters aren't real and there is nothing to be afraid of. But, this may make kids feel misunderstood or dismissed because the fear is very real to them. Instead of ‘don't worry, monsters are not real’ try ‘it must feel so scary to think a monster is in your room.’” The goal is to listen and validate their feelings, while letting them know that it’s normal to feel scared sometimes and that you are there to make sure they are safe.

Lastly, while you may have grown up in an era where children were told to “face your fears,” Burke doesn’t recommend this tactic when it comes to kids and monsters. “Exposing kids to scary images or situations to show them that monsters ‘aren't scary’ can reinforce the fear and create long-term anxiety.” So yeah, save the E.T. screening for when they’re older. “However, we can help kids face the fear in more productive ways, like through play. Help them act it out with dolls or stuffed animals and brainstorm fun ways to get rid of the monsters together,” she suggests.

Things Parents *Can* Do If Your Kid Is Afraid of Monsters

You’ve already gotten some good ideas for how to make monsters silly, validate your child’s feelings and use play to work through the fear. Here are a few more suggestions for how to help you kid squash their fears of something lurking under the bed:

  • “Utilize a calming nighttime routine that promotes relaxation and safety. Grab a nightlight, use a favorite stuffed animal, listen to some music or do some breathing after reading a sweet bedtime story.”
  • “Discuss and explore any underlying anxieties or concerns they may have. Sometimes, fear of monsters can be a manifestation of other worries or stressors in a child's life. Take the time to talk to your child and explore any underlying issues.”

When Does the Fear of Monsters Go Away?

If you’ve tried all of the above and your kid is still begging to sleep with a flashlight every night, don’t fret. Burke tells us that as kids gain a better understanding of reality vs. fantasy, the fear of monsters will diminish. “Usually around age 7 or 8, most kids will start to outgrow a fear of monsters. However, every child is different, and some may outgrow this fear earlier or later depending on various factors such as temperament, experiences and parental support. If the fear persists or interferes significantly with your child's daily life, it may be beneficial to seek guidance from a pediatrician or mental health professional.”

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Executive Editor

Alexia Dellner is an executive editor at PureWow who has over ten years of experience covering a broad range of topics including health, wellness, travel, family, culture and...