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Fantasy vs. Reality

Helping children differentiate

Written by Tamara Bernard, LMSW – former Rainbows Mental Health Specialist


October marks the beginning of Fall. It is a wonderful time of learning and fun in early childhood. We have the opportunity to experience new temperatures, falling leaves, trips to the pumpkin patch, hot cider and of course, Halloween.


Children and adults alike enjoy Halloween. The yearly ritual of looking for costumes, dressing up, trips to the pumpkin patch, face painting, carving jack-o-lanterns, and getting candy, is looked forward to all year. If we could stop there, this time of year would be perfect for young children. It endorses the use of their imaginations, provides new sensory experiences, teaches about how things grow, and much more.


However, the other side of this Halloween tradition is that our society seems to thrive on the need to be scared. People spend huge amounts of money on haunted houses, scary decorations, and horror/slasher films that are geared for older youth and adults. Unfortunately, the commercialism makes it increasingly difficult to protect the eyes and ears of our youngest children.


Here is a vivid example from my own life. When my son was 2½ years old we made our regular monthly trip to Walgreens. As we headed down the center isle to the pharmacy we heard a loud cackling laugh. I quickly realized it was just a Halloween witch toy going off. Initially he was intrigued, but quickly we were surrounded by frightening masks, ghosts, fake bloody plastic objects, black cats, candy, and blinking lights. My son clung to me and said “Go, Mommy! Go! Mean guys gonna get me! Go, Mommy! Go!” His body was having a physical response of “fight or flight” to this experience. For the next year Walgreens became the “Mean Guy store” to our family. We could not get past the pharmacy drive through with my son. Trick-or-treating was out, too. He was fearful of those “mean guys” walking in our neighborhood.


Developmentally at 2½ years old he took these experiences for face value. Children of this age are “concrete” learners. His brain could not understand the difference between reality and fantasy. It wasn’t until he was at least 5 years old that he started to understand the difference. Now at almost 8, he laughs when I tell the story, and he now begs to go down the center isles in every store.


Research from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry report studies of children exposed to as little as 3 months of  violent images can become “immune or numb to the horror of violence, imitate the violence they see, and show more aggressive behavior.” Some children accept violence as a way to handle problems. Studies have also shown that the more realistic and repeated the exposure to violence, the greater the impact on children. In addition, children with emotional, behavioral and learning problems may be more influenced by violent images.


It is important for parents to teach their children to distinguish between child fantasy and reality. Here are a few tips:

· Monitor what you allow your child to watch, play, and read so you are sure he/she is able to fully comprehend the material

· Use what you view or read as a spring board for conversations about pretend/fantasy and explain how it is for entertainment purposes.

· Allow your child to ask questions about the things he sees in movies or reads in books.

· Discuss the characters and how while they are created to appear real, they are actually pretend and these things are not really happening in real life.


Protecting our children’s eyes and ears is important all throughout childhood. With our world becoming more technologically advanced this becomes more and more difficult every day. As our children grow we cannot protect them from everything but teaching them to decipher the differences in itself is a protective factor.