"Who's Afraid"
Gwynne Spencer

If you've got a youngster with nightmares, you know what fear looks like. Kids wake up screaming, pointing at something you can't see, terrified. For most little ones, this hits at three and a half. Usually, mom will take the blame because of a scary book or a frightening movie that the child was not shielded from. But even the most carefully sequestered child will have boogie man dreams and fears to contend with. Instead of telling your child "Don't be afraid", try the following:

Ask the child to tell you again and again about what scared them. Many kids say they are afraid of The Bears (they have limited vocabulary, remember) or The Monster. Repeated tellings will help them get the trauma clear of their system.

Read to them from monster books. Even though this seems to fly in the face of good sense, it works, perhaps because it externalizes and objectifies the fears. Start with Maurice Sendak's classic "Where t he Wild Things Are" (Harpercollins) and Mercer Mayer's "There's a Nightmare in My Closet" (Dial). For older kids, "Bedtime for Francis" by Russell Hoban (Harpercollins) is a comforting story, albeit a bit long for younger kids. In "Maggie and the Monster" by Elizabeth Winthrop (Holiday House), confrontation with terror isits banishment.

Arm tyour youngster. One mother gives her child a flashlight  with red tape over the lens and told him it was a monster death-ray. Another arms her frightened non-sleeper with a can of room spray she has decorated as Anti-Nightmare Spray. Maybe a waterpistol will work as well as the popgun in Mercer Mayer's book.

Leave the lights on. The total dark seems to be terrifying for kids. Who said they have to go to sleep in pitch blackness? Sometimes a night light is just not enough. If the kid can't sleep with the lights out, at least illuminated insomnia is a kinder alternative.

Ask the child to draw the monster. Give full credence to this articulation of inner terror. If the drawing produces too much anxiety, lock it in the trunk of the car or burn it outside.

Tell the child about your own fears when you were little. Did you run from the hall and leap into your bed for fear of the snakes? Did you almost die of fear because of the scritching and scratching of monster teeth on your window? Knowing that everyone is afraid and that most of us live to tell about it is a great comfort for kids.

In other cultures, children are taught to do battle with night terrors and extract the gift they were sent to deliver (sometimes it is only courage). Rehearse during waking hours how to turn and fight the monster, look for its weakness, trick it into submission. "Do Not Open" by Brinton Turkle is an exemplary story to read.

Don't disparate comfort. Read "Snuggle Piggy and the Magic Blanket" by Michele Stepto (Dial) or "Ira Sleeps Over" by Bernard Waber (Houghton Mifflin) to give validity to protective blankies and bears. If nightmares are persistent, consider letting the child sleep with you for a while, or at least until the terror ends. You'll be awake anyway. If you'd like to know more about nightmares and dreams, get "Dreams Can Help" by Jonni Kincher (Free Spirit) or "Your Child's Dreams" by Patricia Garfield. And don't forget to reassure your youngster that everyone walking the planet has had a nightmare at one point or another!
Gwynne Spencer is author of "What's Cooking in Children's Literature
(Linworth Publishing) and a free-range writer living in the Four Corners
area. Both her kids lived through the nightmare stage with the help of books.
She can be reached at PenGwynneS@aol.com