7 Steps to Help Your Child Cope with Nighttime Fears.
When the sun sets on the day and nighttime settles in, the ‘what ifs’ and scary feelings kick into high gear for many children. Nighttime fears are relatively common phenomena for children, but the experience is still troubling for children and their parents often leading to lost sleep and conflict.
Fear of the dark and things that go bump in the night often emerge around age 2 or 3 and typically continue until age 8 or 9. Around age 2 or 3, a child’s imagination blossoms, which makes way for imaginary play. Imaginary play involves using objects for a use other than the originally proscribed purpose or acting out a drama of their daily life. This cognitive advance also allows darker thoughts to enter a child’s their mind, as well. Children at this age begin to internalize dangers in their lives (e.g., looking out for cars, falling from heights) and their fears can tend to coalesce at the end of the day when they are weary and tired.
The goal of supporting your child through their nighttime fears is to understand, empower and encourage your child to overcome their worries and concerns:
1. Gain a better understanding of what your child is afraid of
Conveying a non-judgmental stance, ask open-ended questions to tease apart your child’s fears. “Tell me more about your worry.” “Help me to understand what you think will happen.” “How long have you had this worry?” You will provide comfort to your child simply by asking and allowing them to have their feelings. They will feel heard, understood, and validated. In addition, you will gain information that will inform how to best support them through this process.
2. Empower your child with coping skills
When your child is struggling with nighttime fears, they are typically experiencing discomfort around one of three things: concern over separation from their primary caregiver(s), uncertainty over how safe they are in the world, and/or anticipating events or experiences coming up in their life that they are not sure they can handle. Armed with information from your earlier conversations with your child, you can discern the source of their worries and tailor an approach that targets their specific worries.
3. Foster a soothing nighttime routine
Implement a calming and soothing nighttime routine. Limit screen time two to three hours before bedtime. Studies have shown that light emitted from screens (a.k.a. blue light) disrupts the body’s natural circadian rhythm, suppressing the secretion of melatonin, the body’s natural hormone.
4. Practice calming relaxation rituals
A calm and consistent bedtime routine 30-60 minutes prior to climbing into bed are reassuring, containing, and signals to a child that bedtime is near. Part of that bedtime routine can include guided imagery and progressive muscle relaxation. Lori Lights has a number of books and CDs that take children on fanciful journeys into magical lands, relaxing their body and mind. Relaxation counters the natural fight or flight response that is triggered by worry and anxiety, steering the child toward a more relaxed mindset and ability to cope with the stress.
5. Teach your child positive coping thoughts
Worries and fears have a tendency to catastrophize (“There is a monster in the closet!” “Someone is outside the window!”). Acknowledge your child’s fear (see above), but gently remind them that they have had this feeling before and nothing/no one was ever there lurking in the shadows.
Normalize their fears and label their anxiety in a way that you and your child can align against the discomfort. For example, I often ask children, “What did the worries tell you about nighttime?” A great book to aid in this process is Jonathan James and the What If Monster by Michelle Nelson-Schmidt. Once you and your child are working against the anxiety, you can teach your child to talk back to the anxiety and reassure themselves that everything is well, and they will be just fine, “I am safe.” “This is just anxiety. It may be uncomfortable, but I am safe.”
6. Allow nightlights and security objects
It is completely appropriate to allow your child to use a nightlight or snuggle with a security object, such as a blanket or stuffed animal. For children who want overhead lights or desk lamps on with a great deal of ambient light, consider using a nightlight with varying degrees of brightness. I often recommend that parents start with the brightest setting (if that is all the child will tolerate staying in their bed) and slowly dial the brightness down after a night or two once the child has accustomed to being in their own bed with the light at progressive dimmer variations.
7. Encourage your child to face their fears and help your child to stay in their bed
Most importantly, the number one strategy for managing nighttime fears is to… face them. When parents “rescue” their children from the fears by allowing them to sleep in their bed with them (I’m setting aside conversation and debate about co-sleeping, which is a personal choice for each family), the nighttime fears have a tendency to grow because the child was allowed to “escape” from the discomfort. The ideal way to overcome the discomfort is to learn to sit with the uncomfortable feelings, practice healthy coping skills, and experience the inevitable reduction in fear and stress (e.g., “Ah, that wasn’t so bad after all.”) The next night the child goes the bed, the anxiety and fears are less intense and even less so the following night and so on.
Then you and your child take control!
So, the bottom line is that nighttime fears are normal for children beginning around age 2, topping out at ages 8 or 9. However, the fears do not have to take over your household. You can win the battle with anxiety and empower your child to take on the worries and feel strong and empowered at night and throughout the day.
By Laura C. Kauffman, Ph.D.