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By Dr. Heather
Watch 3-year-olds play: one is caught up in an elaborate make-believe world of roaring dinosaurs, towering giants, and mean doctors administering shots. Another is creating an amazing menagerie of stuffed animals, each one with it’s own role, family, and costume. Imagination — to the max. Scientists and philosophers agree that imaginative play is at the root of all human civilization — the root of all human civilization. So the next time a tea party spontaneously happens at your house, remember that it’s not just a tea party — it’s the crowning achievement of your child’s development thus far. Besides, it’s a lot of fun.
But these new creative powers come at the cost of security. Why? For a baby, the dark is simply — dark. If you can’t imagine a monster in the dark, there simply isn’t one to fear. But when your imagination goes wild, it can come up with fantastic things – things that are sometimes fantastically scary. Creativity automatically increases fears and anxieties in children. And it’s one of the most common questions I hear from parents of preschoolers — Why is my child so frightened all of a sudden?
A creative mind wanders — and wonders. What would happen if the dinosaurs starting biting each other? What if the dinosaurs started biting ME? And what if I bit back? Because your preschooler is also concerned about her OWN aggression. Sometimes SHE is the scary dinosaur. And she knows that scary dinosaurs sometimes bite — and get sent to Time-Out. Her 3-year-old mind doesn’t yet know how to handle her aggression. But don’t worry, it’s normal — all of us have natural, inborn aggression. Thank goodness — because our aggression, when directed wisely, can be molded into assertiveness, healthy competitiveness, and the drive to succeed. But it’s scary-powerful to your preschooler, who hasn’t figured that all out yet.
A complicating factor is that she can’t yet understand the difference between imagination and reality. You can try all day to explain to her that “dinosaurs and monsters don’t exist” — but she won’t believe you. They exist to her — and your reassurances simply won’t carry any weight. Cognitively, she can’t distinguish fantasy from reality — and she won’t be able to until sometime in first grade.
So, what’s a parent to do? Here are some tips for reassuring your scaredy-cat preschooler:
Your appreciation of your child’s creativity – and reassurances of her safety – will help ensure she gets through this fascinating time with a focus on the fun (and not on the fears)!
Once your preschooler is through this time, she’ll be all ready for kindergarten. So make sure to check out my blog post regarding keys to Kindergarten readiness.