It’s Halloween time again—neighborhoods are filled with decorations featuring witches, ghosts, gravestones, and more. Children are excited about the prospect of trick-or-treating and are planning their costumes. With this increased focus on Halloween, this time of year may also come with an increase in children talking about the supernatural or worrying more about ghosts, monsters, or more.
If a child expresses that they think they have seen something scary or supernatural, there can be several explanations. Most commonly, these statements are related to the fact that young children have difficulty separating fantasy from reality. Children are hard-wired to learn through imaginative and pretend play and therefore they can slip between reality and fantasy much more easily than adults. Also, children’s visual perception skills develop most quickly in infancy and toddlerhood, but these skills are still developing throughout early childhood so they are also more likely than adults to misperceive a visual stimulus. Therefore, while an adult might dismiss something they see quickly out of the corner of their eye as “nothing” or have a reality-based explanation, children might insist they saw a ghost or a fairy or some other creature. Additionally, this perception feels real to them and they might get upset if an adult tries to convince them otherwise.
We also have to look to what the response to this declaration is. Attention is the currency of childhood – if a young child who states he or she has seen a supernatural gets a great deal of attention for that statement, he or she is much more likely to make such a statement again in the future. It goes back to basic principles of rewards: behavior that gets rewarded continues and attention is a great reward for most children. We must also look at the function of the behavior. Does declaring that there is a monster under the bed delay the separation from parents at bedtime that can be challenging for many children? In this case, the reward is the parent staying in the room longer.
Of course, more than one of these issues can be at play at any given time. A young child may genuinely misperceive a sight or sound as being a monster, their difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality leads them to fully believe that monsters are real, and then they are rewarded with time, attention, possibly some soothing from parents, and with the delay of the separation at bedtime.
So what’s a parent to do?
Start with validating the child’s concern or fear, while helping them distinguish reality from fantasy. Sometimes offering an explanation can help allay fears, for example, letting them know that at this time of year witches and ghosts and the like are on our minds more. If attention seems to be motivating the behavior, decrease the amount of attention you provide for these statements and increase the amount of attention you give to other things they say. For example, a statement about seeing a ghost gets a brief “Uh-huh” while a statement about what they are doing or the dog they see outside gets an enthusiastic “Wow! That’s great! What color was the dog?” A quick “monster check” at bedtime is typically fine for a young child, but as children get older parents should help with differentiating fantasy from reality and reminding them that monsters are not real.
Aleta G. Angelosante, PhD, is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health. She is a child psychologist and the Clinical Director of the Anita Saltz Institute for Anxiety and Mood Disorders at the Child Study Center, part of Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone.