With Halloween at hand I am reminded of the different kinds of ghosts and monsters that frighten our children – and even at times, haunt us as parents. Most parents remember, or are living now with children going through the stage when they find it scary to go into a dark room. Bedtime is a favorite for seeing monsters under the bed, or ghosts in the closet, making going to sleep impossible, and creating a need to have parents stay close by.
Some of you may remember Danny Kaye, the talented comedian/actor known for his tongue twister songs. Years ago he had a song called, “Mommy, Gimme a Drink of Water”, in which using a child’s voice he acts out all the devices children use to bring a parent back into the room after the final story and goodnight. Of course, the drink of water is a favorite, as well as needing to go potty. But being afraid of the ghosts and monsters in the room is a big one, leading the child to call out in a frightened voice.
Parents are sometimes dismissive of fears that seem merely a product of children’s imagination. But children are not comforted by the reassurance that the ghosts and monsters are not there. Their struggle with these fantasized creatures is an essential rite of passage in their development – in fact one we probably all have been through or maybe go through still, in one form or another.
In her wonderful book, “The Magic Years”, Selma Fraiberg gives us insight into the minds of young children, when fantasy is more developed than logic and children believe that their thoughts and behavior make things happen in the outside world. In their magical thinking their thoughts, behavior, and feelings are responsible for events around them. As we know, children often have angry thoughts and wishes about their parents, who often are frustrating and mean in their eyes. Siblings, too, are often the recipient of such angry wishes. Then if a sibling should get hurt, or a parent become ill, a child may imagine that his thoughts or wishes were responsible.
Children often misbehave, or do things of which their parents don’t approve. In this way, too, if something bad happens they may believe their behavior is responsible. It is not unusual for children to believe that unfortunate events are a punishment for “bad” thoughts or behavior. (Even adults feel that way at times.) Children’s separation anxiety can be an expression of the fear that something may happen to the parent or to them unless the parent is close by – even a fear that their own impulses may break loose and wreak havoc.
The ghosts and monsters that children see are stand-ins for their own frightening thoughts, feelings and impulses. They are frightening because in children’s magical thinking they are responsible for the bad things that happen. And sometimes they are responsible, as when children are punished for “bad” behavior. The struggle with these monsters and ghosts reflect children’s inner struggle with their own forbidden wishes and the untamed impulses that often lead to unacceptable behavior.
The fight against imagined ghosts and monsters is a psychological battle in which children seek the power of their parents to protect them. It is a life-or-death struggle in which children fight to overcome the ghosts and monsters or at least hold them at bay. Their fears are real even though the reason they give for the fear may be imaginary. They need the reassurance that they have their parents’ support and will not be alone in their struggle.
In fact, parents are more powerful than the ghosts and monsters. It is with their help and support that children overcome destructive impulses and behavior. It is through an alliance with parents, the wish for their approval, that children are enabled to keep those impulses in check and to adopt parental standards for behavior. More reassuring than trying to persuade children that there are no ghosts or monsters, is letting them know that they, their parents, will protect them and keep them safe from all those creatures.
Perhaps the costumes children choose for Halloween, the powerful characters they can pretend to be, are another way of helping them feel that they, too, can slay the dragon, or rid the place of ghosts and monsters. The trick is to get the “bad guys”. The treat is that parents are there to help.
BOO! Happy Halloween!