I’ve been meaning to write about this for a long time as I get questions from parents about their child’s nighttime fears often. With Halloween coming up soon, I can’t think of a better time for this topic. Halloween can be scary for some kids and the fears are common at this time of the year. Regardless of the time of year, most children will go through a “scaries” phase at some point, my children included. It is so important to listen to your child, validate the fears and let them know you understand (even when you don’t…often fears don’t make sense, but they are very real to your child!)
If your child is struggling with fears at bedtime, this is no time for cry-it-out. When dealing with fears I like to recommend the three “R’s”: respond, reassure, and remind them of their safety. However, unless you actually want to co-sleep, this isn’t a time to cave and just let them sleep with you or fall asleep in their room either. By doing these things you send the message that they aren’t safe unless you are there. Instead, it’s important to try and help with the fear first.
A general fear of the dark is a common fear I see with the kids I work with and it usually starts around the age of 3 years, give or take. At this age their imaginations get very active and they have trouble distinguishing between fantasy and reality. Another common fear I hear of from the young kids I work with are shadows in their rooms at night. It’s important to have your child show you where the shadows are and see if there is anything you can do to make them go away. Sometimes you have to move things out of the room. If there is a streetlight in front of the house, using blackout curtains can be helpful too.
Be aware of what your child is watching on TV shows and movies. Even many kid-friendly shows can have scary themes for a young child. And each child can be scared of something different. It is not always monsters and ghosts. I’ve heard of some pretty random fears that kids have when they are alone in the dark. So if your child is old enough, ask them what they think about in the dark and try to make sure they aren’t coming across that fear in any shows or books during the day.
It is important not to support your child’s fears. One example of this is the “monster spray” I often see people recommend. By doing something such as spraying repellent to keep away the monsters, I think it makes your child assume you believe the monsters are real too and that there is something to be afraid of. I don’t recommend this.
What to do for a child with fears:
- Flashlights: Flashlights can really empower your child and help them feel like they have more control over this fear, which can help them become less fearful. Just let them know they can turn it on anytime they want to look around the room.
- Encourage an attachment to a lovey/security object: These can really help kids cope with separation from parents and nighttime fears. Kids really like when you tuck their lovey in and say goodnight to it too.
- Play fun things in the dark: Try making shadow puppets, playing flashlight tag, or having a fun night where you dance with glow-in-the-dark jewelry or go on a treasure hunt for things that glow in the dark.
- Read books about nighttime fears: These can help your child see she isn’t alone and give some solutions for the fears. It’s best to find books as specific to your child’s fear as you can. Here are a few ideas: What Was I Scared Of by Dr. Seuss, Clark the Shark: Afraid of the Dark by Bruce Hale, A Bedtime Kiss for Chester Raccoon by Audrey Penn.
- Teach Guided Imagery: As your child lays in bed, have her try to use all of her senses to imagine a relaxing scene such as the beach or another place they really like.
- White Noise Machine: Can help block out any noises that your child finds to be scary.
*If your child suffers from severe nighttime fears, especially if you are noticing some anxiety during the day, please consult with her pediatrician or a licensed therapist who can recommend a program to help your child. If your child is older than six years, this is commonly something that needs to be addressed. This really needs to happen first before sleep will likely improve.
I hope that if you follow these suggestions consistently and patiently, your whole family will have peaceful nights!