As 4- and 5-year-olds begin to understand abstract concepts, their fears become more complex as well. They're scared of what they can see and of what lurks in their imagination -- the monster under the bed, things that go bump in the night, and what might happen when Mom and Dad aren't nearby. It's no surprise that this is the peak age for nightmares. And since preschoolers still have a hard time distinguishing fact from fantasy, their bad dreams can feel terrifyingly real.
- Answer the "what-ifs." Children this age are mostly worried about what could happen, says Dr. Garber. If your child jumps at the sight of your neighbor's dog, for example, calm her by explaining the dog's behavior. Instead of saying, "The dog won't hurt you," be specific: "The dog sniffs you to get to know you. He barks because that's how dogs talk."
- Don't overreact to nightmares. When Ryan McCaffery, 5, has a bad dream, mom Candace does her best to calm her. "Sometimes I'm just so exhausted that I let her stay with me, though," admits the Atlanta mom. But it's better to give a quick reassurance and tuck your child into her own bed; otherwise, you validate her fears.
- Look for role models. If your child is terrified of the monkey bars at the playground, encourage her to watch an older sibling or another kid around her age play on them without pressuring her to take a turn. Seeing somebody she can relate to confronting her fear may give her a shot of courage.
- Respect her feelings. Teasing your child or forcing her to confront a situation that terrifies her will probably backfire. But don't overindulge the fear either -- otherwise, you may convince her that she's truly in danger, says Dr. Burgess. If your child freaks out every time she hears thunder, for example, resist the urge to scoop her up and hold her tight. Get down on her level and talk about it instead.