Last summer, when Zippy was 4 1/2, we let him watch Harry Potter & The Chamber of Secrets. I know, I know – perhaps not the wisest movie choice for a preschooler. We had just finished reading the book to him and, as we usually do, followed up with the movie. Hubby, who is our resident expert on all things Harry Potter and such, assured me the movie was fine – nothing too scary in the first installment. I contemplated fast forwarding through any questionable scenes while making Zip cover his eyes – like my parents made us do during kissing scenes when I was a kid – but in the end I just told him to cover his eyes if anything bothered him. He insisted he was not scared of anything and watched it all, eyes wide open.
All was good until we took a trip to Vermont a few weeks later and he had to sleep, alone, in an unfamiliar bedroom. Zippy would get out of bed after I had tucked him in, tiptoe down the stairs, and suddenly appear at my side, looking cute as a bug in his summer jammies with worry written on his face. “I can’t sleep. I’m scared.” I would walk him back upstairs and tuck him in again, this time with the bedside lamp left on. He’d lay awake waiting for me to come to bed or, a little later, reappear at my side and we’d do the whole thing again.
On one trip back upstairs, he asked, “Are trolls real?” Trolls? “You know, like in Harry Potter?” Uh oh. You mean great, big, ugly trolls ten times bigger than you that require three kids with magic to defeat? (I didn’t say that part out loud.) Our decision had come back to bite us in the butt!
I explained to him that no, trolls were not real. Harry Potter was the first “live action” movie Zippy had seen, so we talked about how even though the trolls looked real, they were not – just like Harry and his buds aren’t really wizards. We talked about how some movies and books are about things that could be real, but others are full of make-believe ideas. And we talked about examples – his book Granite is the true story of a sled dog in Alaska, but Where the Wild Things Are is not real. I told him that when he isn’t sure if something is real or pretend, he can ask me or Daddy.
We had this conversation a lot over the weeks that followed. As we’d read a new book, I would ask, “Do you think this is a story that could really happen?” Or, while watching a tv show, I’d point out what was possible and what was not. One of the reasons I should have realized watching Harry Potter wasn’t a great idea is that preschoolers are very prone to fears. They have amazing minds, capable of imagining all sorts of possibilities, but they don’t yet have the experience that will help them distinguish reality from fantasy. It’s very likely that Zippy would have experienced some fear the dark anyway, since it’s a very common preschooler fear, but surely the trolls at Hogwarts didn’t help.
As I lay there next to Zippy, I told him to close his eyes and think really hard about something that makes him feel safe and happy – playing in the sand at the beach or hunting for snakes on a nature walk. The happy thought wouldn’t leave room for the scary thoughts, I explained. Zip resisted this idea for a long time – “It won’t work!” he insisted – but months later he informed me that when he gets scared at night he thinks about our trip to the beach. So I guess something sunk in!
I love when I get to bust out one of my therapist skills to help my kids build their coping skills. Asking questions to examine the accuracy of a thought and using imagery or relaxation are things that even preschoolers can be empowered to use when they get scared! There is also the time-honored tradition of sleeping with the covers over your head. Zip is now an expert at that one, too!
Is your child afraid of the dark? Do you have any special tricks for helping her?