Hi! Please help me welcome guest blogger, Nina! She is the founder of Sleeping Should Be Easy—an awesome parenting blog.
I heard my three-year-old in the middle of the night open the door to his room and give a little whimper. “What’s the matter?” I asked him. As his lip began to quiver, I pressed on, “Are you scared?” He was, and after several more questions, I learned that he was concerned about an ominous stain on the ceiling; a blob of a shape that seemed to loom over him and feed his imagination. My little boy was scared, and I needed to help him cope, face his fears and feel secure in his bed. But how?
Listen and empathize with your child’s fears
It’s easy to dismiss your child’s fears; groggy at two in the morning, I could barely see in the dark, much less have any desire to have a conversation with a three-year-old. It’s just a stain on the ceiling! was what I really wanted to say. Still… these are his genuine fears, just as adults are afraid of spiders and ghosts and yes, the dark.
And so I listened, and we talked. We sat on the bathroom floor as I tried to piece his emotions together. He needed to know that someone was on his side, that he wasn’t going crazy, and that it’s perfectly normal to feel this way from time to time. I also mentioned a few times when I’ve been scared so that he knows he’s not alone.
If your child brings the episode up the next day, use the opportunity to elaborate on what happened. Without the dark or the need to go to sleep, discussing your child’s fears in the safety of the day can help him open up.
Don’t reinforce the fears and pretend the fantasies exist
Most parents’ initial reaction to monsters and other scary fantasies is to “banish” them away, such as sweeping the creatures out of the room or ridding them with monster spray. I know I thought so. Kids are surrounded with fantasy and imagination and use pretend play to sort through feelings, so it could seem like a good idea to apply the same approach to their nighttime fears. Plus,monster-banishing can even turn into a laugh-fest, arresting their fears and turning them into a joyful moment.
But on further research, I learned that acting along and pretending the monsters exist reinforce our kids’ fears because we’re acknowledging that they could, in fact, be real. Checking for monsters under the bed as if they could actually be hiding down there might convince them that monsters actually exist.
Instead, keep things factual and truthful. Acknowledge the fear as genuine and real, but reassure your child that the monsters are not.
Keep your child in her bed, not yours
Another common misconception about nighttime fears is that kids should sleep in your bed when they’re afraid in theirs. We want to comfort our kids, and our bed seems like the place to do just that. Unfortunately, doing so plants two ideas in her head: 1) that her bed isn’t safe enough for her stay there, and 2) that she may not have the coping skills to handle the situation on her own.
A better option is to walk her back to her bed and, if need be, stay with her until she falls asleep. But even this shouldn’t be done too often, as it will again force her to rely on you (an external sleeping aid) as opposed to enriching her own soothing methods (internal sleeping aid).
Tip: Kids need consistency and boundaries, so you will want to balance providing comfort with being firm and consistent.
Offer and suggest coping methods
Once I made it clear to my son that he had to sleep in his bed (he started making excuses to hang out in the living room), I needed to provide coping methods to ease his fears. I suggested that he sleep in bed and pull the covers over his head—an idea that he really took to and was ready to try. I also made sure he had his special lovey and other stuffed animals, and we sang a few nursery songs before heading back to bed.
Recount pleasant memories that places happy thoughts in his head, much in the same way I need to watch comedy shows (Friends!) after watching a scary movie (The Ring).
Prepping the room can also help your child cope better with nighttime fears. Install a night light if that helps your child feel reassured that nothing is lurking in the dark. Prop the door a little bit open so he doesn’t feel stuck and can see a sliver of light from outside. We also hung a decorative flag near the stain so that it covers most of it. Truth be told, the stain was an eyesore for us as well, and my son seemed grateful for having something else cover the unsightly blob.
Reassure your child’s safety
During our talk in the bathroom, I kept reiterating that my son was safe. I would say things like:
• “I will protect you.”
• “The stain will not do anything to you.”
• “I’m nearby—right on the other side of the wall.”
• “You are safe.”
After tucking him in back to bed and right before I was about to walk away, he told me, “You’re on the other side of the wall. I’m safe.” It was then that I knew these motivational phrases had seeped into his head and would hopefully remind him that he truly was safe.
Offer to check in on your child
Another method that will can convince your child to stay in bed is to check in on her every 15 minutes or so. This way, she’s in her bed (not yours, or out in the living room as my son had wanted), but that you would come in from time to time so she knows you’re there.
Keep pre-bedtime peaceful and upbeat
Right before bed is not the time to read scary books or cause anxiety in your child. Instead, keep the mood light and calm. Read upbeat books. Ask him what his favorite part of the day was. Snuggle close, and often. And help build his self-confidence, not just before bedtime but throughout the day.
How have you handled your child’s nighttime fears? What has your child been afraid of? Let us know in the comments below!
Nina is the author of Sleeping Should Be Easy and a working mom of three boys (a three-year-old and infant twins). Her blog features useful tips and insightful discussions about parenting. Read more of Nina’s posts on her blog and be sure to follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest!