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Opinion How to deal with your child's fear of the monsters under the bed

Philippa Perry writes about how not to shut children down, which might only encourage them not to talk to you about big and small things.

PSYCHOTHERAPIST PHILIPPA PERRY has written a new book about parenting – called The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read. In it, she explores how to parent well and give your children a healthy upbringing – while not being too hard on yourself. Here are her practical thoughts on ‘the monster under the bed’.

When they are very small, children may talk of ghosts or monsters under the bed. Rather than paying attention to the story or the reason they give, pay attention to the feeling they are expressing.

Instead of dismissing the idea that there are monsters under the bed out of hand, name the feeling the monsters seem to be representing. “You sound scared, can you tell me a bit more?” Or, “Let’s make up a story about these monsters. What are their names?”

If you do this, you may be able to vanquish the monsters. Do whatever fits your natural style; it isn’t so much the words we use, it’s staying with our children until they feel soothed rather than dismissing them as silly.

For all you know, those monsters may be representing your impatience at bedtime or something else complicated that your child can’t articulate.

Even when it’s impossible to trace the source of every feeling, that doesn’t mean the feeling isn’t real. It still needs validating. And making your child feel silly with a “don’t be silly – you know monsters are made up” is unlikely to soothe them.

What’s important is to keep the lines of communication open.

If you dismiss your child by telling them they’re being silly, they learn not only to clam up on the ‘silly’ communications but also those you wouldn’t consider silly. 

The distinction between ‘silly’ and ‘not silly’ is so clear to us we might assume it is to a child as well. But nobody can help feeling what they feel, even if other people would feel differently in the same situation, even if other people think it is silly.

You want to be the person your child can talk to. If you tell them they are being silly to complain when Granny made them a nice lentil stew, they may feel they can’t tell you when the creepy piano teacher puts his hand on their leg.

The difference between those two things is loud and clear to us but to a child they are both filed under “something icky”. And if some icky things are dismissed as irrelevant by you, your child is likely to feel it is not worth the humiliation of sharing any more of them.

You may think this is an extreme example because Granny’s stew and a piano teacher touching a child’s leg are so very different. But your child has not been in the world as long as you have, has not had all your experience, has not read everything you have read, has not yet understood sexuality.

Your child may not have learned to register alarm at being touched inappropriately in the same way as they feel alarmed about eating something they don’t like.

To them, both are an assault on their senses. Telling a child they are being silly about anything will close down communications from them to you, and that might be a dangerous thing to do.

Taken from The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will be Glad That You Did) by Philippa Perry, published by Penguin Life, priced €14.99. Author photo by Doug Peters/Doug Peters/EMPICS Entertainment.

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