Last year, we started dealing with nightmares from our (at the time) 2 1/2 year old. He would wake up screaming for us, we had to go in and rub his back, then he’d be fine. Little by little, these have tapered off, but he still wakes up once in a while wandering into our room or calling for us (pretty normal, I think).
Interestingly, I just read this article about a new Israeli study, and it makes SO much sense. Basically, they’re saying that a lot of night fears come from scary images/stories stored in children’s minds, and they can’t tell the different between fact and fiction. Telling them a monster isn’t “real” doesn’t make sense to them. Especially when we talk about other fictionalized characters (Tooth Fairy, Santa) as if they exist.
I know this to be VERY true for us, and have even discussed this with a few moms recently. The other night at bed time my son asked, “how do you know bad guys won’t get me tonight?” And I tried to explain that bad guys aren’t real and that Spiderman (that would be the life-size Spidey sticker above his bed) would protect him. Being as my kid is ten times smarter than me, he said, “Mama, if the bad guys aren’t real, Spiderman isn’t real either and can’t protect me.” Um, DUH. I suddenly realized how often we use his superhero obsession to motivate “Batman eats a lot of vegetables, Peter Parker loves school and is very smart, etc.”, but we expect him to suddenly understand and feel comforted when we tell him the Green Goblin isn’t real.
The whole superhero-stories-fantasy thing is actually a really complex concept when you break it down to, in my case, a VERY literal child. For instance, when he asks if Bruce Wayne is Batman and I say yes, he says, “then who am I when I wear a Batman costume? Am I me or am I Bruce Wayne dressed up? and isn’t Bruce Wayne a grown up and I’m a little boy?” or “Can Spiderman fly” and I say “He can jump and glide from tall buildings” and he proceeds to put on his Spiderman costume, jump off our front stairs, and skin his knee…
You get the point. Bottom line, I think we need to be constantly aware of reinforcing the idea that these characters and stories are MADE UP. They aren’t real. They are from our imagination. We say it with bad guys, but we need to be clear with the good guys too and try not to use the old “Superman would do x,y,z” or “you can ask Santa for that gift” crutch, as it only adds to the confusion. Still a tough concept to grasp, but at least its consistent.