By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Awareness of her own power brings new fears to a 4-year-old. She becomes more aware that she’s a small child, a part of a larger world, dependent on her parents or others at critical times. Her new understanding makes her conscious of her limitations. She feels pulled between this sense of dependence and a desire to master her world that propels her onward.

Play and fantasy are powerful ways to work this out. The child’s ability to verbalize and reason makes her fantasies more elaborate.

But these vivid fantasies lead to fears and bad dreams. “I dreamt of a witch in my closet.” “I know there’s no monster in my room, but I feel it.”

The monsters and witches may also represent the strain of facing “new” feelings. Becoming aware of powerful negative and aggressive impulses can be frightening. A parent can help her accept them. But to master them, the child needs to learn, gradually, the difference between having a feeling and acting on it.

Fears and nightmares are common in 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds. Children worry about “bad guys,” witches, lions, tigers and monsters.

These night problems occur at the same time as a fear of dogs, loud noises, sirens and ambulances. Such problems herald the child’s more openly aggressive feelings, which frighten her when they seem echoed by forces beyond her control.

At this stage, children want to test their own limits more openly. They want to act out aggressive and rebellious play. Such feelings are important to a child’s personality and sense of security. They need to know they can feel angry and not lose control.

Firm discipline and consistent limits are reassuring to a child at this time: “You may not wander around the house at night. I may well have to fix your door. I can come to you, but you can’t come out alone.”

What helps a child learn to cope with fears and nightmares?

  1. Comfort the child and take the fears seriously, but don’t add your own anxiety to hers.
  2. Look under the bed and in the closet. Let her understand that this is for her comfort, not because you really think there is any danger.
  3. Set firm limits on bedtime. They’re reassuring.
  4. Don’t forget the power of a comforting lovey.
  5. Help a child learn how to soothe herself when she wakes in fear. She can distract herself by singing songs, making up stories or thinking pleasant thoughts. In modified form, adapted to other situations, she will use these skills for the rest of her life.
  6. Help the child learn “safe” aggression during the day. Modeling your own ways of handling your aggression becomes even more important. Talk about them with the child when they occur.
  7. Read fairy tales together. They encourage young children to face their own fears and angry feelings. Or read, among many others, “There’s a Nightmare in My Closet,” by Mercer Mayer; “Where the Wild Things Are,” by Maurice Sendak; and “Much Bigger Than Martin,” by Steven Kellogg.

Books allow a child to face and eventually master such feelings: She can turn the pages at her own pace, study a picture as long as she likes, go backward or close the book tight. Television and movies have a pace of their own – they present scary situations too vividly and fail to respect the child’s need to control how much she is able to confront.

(This article is adapted from “Touchpoints: Three to Six,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.)

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Prior to Dr. Brazelton’s passing in 2018, he was the founder and director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is now the director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.