The Psychology Behind Childhood Monsters

An illustration titled “Blurry Child Fears” explaining the confused fears children might have in regards to a monster they have never saw. March 2, 2020. Raghad Murad

In many cultures, parents tell scary tales about fictional monsters that will appear to their children if they misbehave. Whether these tales are meant to get the kids to eat or sleep on time, they have become more than a simple parenting method around the world. In a small town in Algeria, a young girl was once even afraid to go back home because she believed the monster was standing behind her house’s main door.

Unlike most parents who resort to fictional monsters, Ibtisam Sellam’s hometown residents depicted a real person from the neighborhood as a monster. They called him Koko Balala and used him to get their children to behave properly. The man was old and always wore a long, navy trench coat and a matching hat. He would wander around the town of Ahmar Al Ain and the children were always afraid to get near him.

“Wherever he was standing, the kids never passed by,” said Sellam, a 21-year-old university student in Dubai.   “He was actually scary with the way he dressed, and the parents were very creative in their stories; saying that he would take us to the forest to take off our ears and eyes, and then throw us there, so [our parents] wouldn’t find us.” 

As she grew up, Sellam discovered that the real story behind Koko Balala was that of a heartbroken man. After spending a year and a half in the military, he came back to find that his lover had married another man. He then developed a mental disorder, and the local residents started to call him names and use him as a monster to scare their children. Some youngsters used to throw rocks at him, and when he reacted angrily, he became even more frightening for the children.

Sabine Rizk, co-owner and assessment director at Human Relations Institute and Clinic in Dubai, opposes the rationale of parents resorting to monsters to discipline their children. She believes that disciplining children by using monsters is a form of emotional abuse. “Emotional abuse has the same effect on the child as physical abuse,” Rizk said in a phone interview. “What the child learns when they grow up is that they can’t trust their parents anymore.” 

Between the ages of three and seven, children attain normal developmental fears that may cause anxieties in some cases. Threats from the parents can create anxiety and contradict the principles of a positive disciplining approach, according to Rizk. In order for children to feel safe to explore the world, they need to feel safe at home. “Those types of threats induce trauma in children,” Rizk said.

“The idea of a monster lying underneath your bed, or in the wardrobe is very threatening,” said Viola Weber, a mother of two children and a psychology professor at the American University in Dubai. “It’s better to model good behavior and positively reinforce them, instead of trying to exert power.” 

Mohammad Elian, a 21-year-old university student in Dubai, recalls a story from his childhood in Jordan, when his mother scared him and his cousins with the tale of a one-legged fictional man called Abo Rejel Maklou’a. “I later started hearing weird noises coming from a beggar that I couldn’t see that night, and I was really scared,” he said.

In Ahmar Al Ain in Algeria, children in the area are still afraid of the same so-called monster, even though the man died several years ago, according to Sellam. Koko Balala remains a scary legend because of the vivid descriptions of the man and his weird behavior made by parents to get their children to behave better.

Edited by: Raseel Amro


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