Researchers looking into why children often fear nighttime reveal that their inability to distinguish fantasy from reality is the main reason behind the fear.
Most children experience nighttime fears at some point in their development and while most grow out of them without any professional intervention, others contend with persistent and extended periods of these fears, with a risk of developing anxiety problems later in life.
As part of a large-scale project on nighttime fears funded by the Israeli Science Foundation, Prof. Avi Sadeh of Tel Aviv University's School of Psychological Sciences is exploring how these fears fit into the normal developmental process - and when they become a problem.
Together with Dr. Jonathan Kushnir, who completed his Ph.D. studies in the field in Prof. Sadeh's lab, MA student Tamar Zisenwine, and Ph.D. student Michal Kaplan, he discovered that a child's ability to differentiate fact from fiction has a huge impact on overcoming terror of things that go bump in the night.
In their study, the researchers found that preschoolers with persistent nighttime fears were far less able to distinguish reality from fantasy compared to their peers.
The research will help clinicians and parents alike to develop interventions that can better soothe fretful children, he said, noting that a strong imagination can ultimately be used to the child's psychological advantage.
Simply telling a child that their fear isn't realistic doesn't solve the problem, he said.
Prof. Sadeh recommends using the child's strong imagination as a treatment. For instance, parents might help their children view an imaginary monster as a non-threatening entity, perhaps by writing it a letter to extend an offer of friendship or reading the child a book in which a threatening figure turns out to be friendly.
One treatment that Prof. Sadeh has found highly effective is a toy called a "huggy puppy."
In this therapy, children are presented with a stuffed dog and told that the once happy puppy is now sad. They are given the responsibility of being the puppy's friend, caring for him, and ensuring that he is not afraid at night.
Because this intervention depends on the child's willingness to believe the huggy puppy's story and embrace their new compassionate role, it works best for children with stronger imaginations, he says.
The study has been published in Child Psychiatry and Human Development.