Anti-monster’ products help kids face fears

Not since Van Helsing stalked Dracula and those villagers with torches rushed toward Frankenstein’s castle has the monster-battling industry been so busy.

Whether a child fears ghosts or witches or other creatures that go bump in the night, there’s a growing list of products designed to banish them: Need a “Go Away Monster” board game or a book on the subject? Plenty are available. You’ll also find “anti-monster” spray and under-bed lights designed to scare away the meanest of imaginary beasts.

If that doesn’t do the trick, a company in Dallas promises that its Magical Monster Trap will reduce fears of closet-dwelling bogeymen to puddles of harmless liquid.

With so many kids apparently lying awake fearing what lurks in the shadows, Halloween traditions that celebrate monsters may seem somewhat counterintuitive. And it’s hard to hide from monster season: These are the weeks when homes, daycare centers and schools across the country are festooned with images of monsters, witches, werewolves and graveyards. The popular retailer Lillian Vernon offers devil and skeleton costumes for children as young as 18 months.

But therapists say monster tales can have their place, giving children a constructive landscape on which to work through their fears and helping them to develop tools to cope with the real-world dangers.

“Kids naturally, around the ages of 4 and 5, develop these fears of the dark and other fears,” says Dr. Stephen Garber, a behavioral psychologist and co-author of “Monsters Under the Bed and Other Childhood Fears.”

“The culture intentionally is exposing them to this to help inoculate them,” he says. “They’re overcoming it, and for the vast majority of kids, they’re not so traumatized.”

The key, says Garber, is teaching children to handle the presence of the scary things – real and imagined.

“Our role as parents is to support our kids and help them face fears, not avoid them,” Garber says. “By learning that I can have a fear, and I can get used to it and get over it, that builds a confidence that I can deal with anxiety.”

He’s not a fan of the anti-monster sprays or traps, which can convince children that parents share the belief that there are monsters in the closet. Instead, he suggests helping children use their imaginations positively.

“If they’ve got this fear of a monster chasing them, have them imagine turning around and shrinking it with a ray gun,” he says, “and having the monster run away.”

But while Garber doesn’t suggest we shield kids from fear, he does advise that we protect small children from disturbing real-world images.

“If there’s anything we need to protect our kids from, it’s the evening news,” he says.

Without realizing it, children may make a connection between real and imagined monsters.

In “The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror,” author David J. Skal points out that by 1962, tens of thousands of American children “had become devoted readers of magazine with titles like ‘Famous Monsters of Filmland’ and ‘Castle of Frankenstein.'” Skal notes that this surge in fascination with monsters coincided with the growing fear of atomic annihilation that pervaded the era.

“Very little about the underlying structure of horror images really changes,” he writes, “though our cultural uses for them are as shape-changing as Dracula himself.” In the years since Sept. 11, when children may be sensing fear in America, some may turn to stories of monsters in order to cope.

Bill Adler, author of “Tell Me a Fairy Tale: A Parent’s Guide to Telling Magical and Mythical Stories,” reshaped traditional bedtime stories when his children were younger to help them combat fears of ghosts and also quell worries that might have been engendered by events like the Oklahoma City bombing.

Adler’s book supplies outlines of familiar fairy tales and reminds parents that they can modify these stories by altering scenes that could keep their children – and, thus, themselves – awake at night. He also suggests deliberately incorporating something your child dreads, then showing a character in the story overcoming that fear.

“One of our daughters was scared of sirens at night, so we introduced sirens into a fairy tale,” he says. “We used it to show her that the sirens were not so scary.”