Monsters under the bed. Bogeymen in the closet. Being leery of every bump in the night or spooky noise in the house. Most children at some time or another are afraid of the dark, and have difficulty falling asleep - or staying asleep - because of it. It is a typical challenge parents face – and a definite struggle for both parent and child.
Parents want to compassionately acknowledge that a child is afraid – anxiety stemming from fears which can be as valid as reality to him or her – and be that steady source of comfort for their children. At the same time, parents want to uphold boundaries and house rules about bedtime – and keep their sanity. If that's possible.
Finding some tools and tricks of the trade for bedtime success can lessen the striving on both sides; children can find a way to feel both comforted by their parents and empowered to face their fears. This is a parental win-win because it enables kids to feel empowered and safe. Parents love this because they can see the light (or dark) at the end of the tunnel.
Of course, if the anxieties worsen, or seem to be stemming from a larger problem, they may severely affect a child’s sleep patterns and overall well-being. In that case, talk with the child's physician to see if further action should be taken to ensure the child's health. However, for the garden-variety fears, here are some basic tips to help kids who are scared of the dark.
Experts say that it is better for children when their parents to comfort the children in their own room, rather than for the child to constantly come sleep in their parent's room when they are afraid. If a child goes to their parents in the middle of the night, parents should gently and firmly comfort the child and then walk them back to their own bedroom. Give the child a chance to talk about what scared him.
Reassure her that she is safe in her own bed, and stay with her for a short time if necessary. Parents can tell their kids that they will come back to check on him, returning first after two minutes, then after five minutes, then after ten minutes, and so on, until the child has fallen asleep. Empower kids to rely on their own self-confidence to overcome their worries; this will build those skills even stronger for the future.
The Cincinnati Children's Hospital website states, "If able to stay in bed and experience that everything is OK, he / she will learn to trust the bed is a safe place. If children are allowed to get up from bed and come into [their parents] room or into the room with other family members that are awake, they may learn that their room is not a safe place."
From square one of attempting to solve any issue that may arise, parents try to get to the root of the matter. Are there other circumstances affecting his routine, such as a recent move, that could be spurring on additional anxiety? Has she changed schools or changed friends? Is the family going through a difficult time, such as an illness or a divorce?
Working through these bigger issues may help the fear of the dark subside. Another tactic is to take an honest look at the reality of your child's behavior. Is your child really scared of the dark, or just trying to spend more time with you (or her siblings)? Are there genuine fears present or are these excuses to get out of bed? (Yes, even the most charming children might mislead us sometimes!)
Most often there exists an internal parental gauge to determine what's really happening with our children, and, with some discernment, we can figure out the best remedy.
If you are a child and you can't have your parents (or a sibling) sleep in the room with you, what might be the next best thing? A pet! If the family dog or cat is cooperative, it could have its sleeping quarters with your child. An aquarium with fish or a turtle would provide both another living thing, plus give a little bit of light for your child.
Sometimes having another warm body to cuddle can dissuade any fears they might have and help them to feel more comfortable in the dark. Also if the child believes their pet will "look after" them, it can also help them feel secure in the darkness of their room.
Obviously, the parents should make the call that the child is mature and dependable enough for this responsibility. Use all proper caution in ensuring the child can be trusted with the animal all by himself, and cannot open or knock over an aquarium, etc.
Prescribing the right solution for our children's problems comes naturally as a parent - sometimes too naturally. This can lead to us barging ahead with our own ideas of what is best without involving them. Encourage your child to talk with you about their worries and any solutions he may have.
It may be difficult at first, but she should be able to at some point verbalize the fears she is having. Even while their children are at a young age, parents can model the problem-solving process of identifying the issue and finding potential ways to solve it.
When he feels comfortable sharing with you as a child, he will feel comfortable discussing bigger issues as he grows older. Working together as a team builds the relationship between parent and child, and builds a child confident in her own problem-solving skills.
Ask your child exactly what is bothering them, or what he is frightened about. Many children will have general fears of things in their imagination, monsters in the closet or under their bed. While acknowledging their fear itself (“I can see how that might be scary to think about!”), gently assure them of their safety (“Monsters like that are only real in our imaginations.”)
Especially if your child is the imaginative type, don’t feed into the fear by playing along too much. (Although treating the situation with a little whimsy and silliness sometimes can help some children put things into perspective.)
If the anxiety is coming from real-life situations (i.e. someone breaking into the home, worries about war or natural disasters), address it on the appropriate developmental level, reminding her that you as her parent will always do everything you can to keep her safe. Speaking to the child on her level will help her feel heard, while using reason to discuss his fears will help develop problem solving skills as he grows and faces the next challenge.
Many studies exist about the effects of television viewing on children. It can be challenging to determine (and enforce) the boundaries you will use as a parent regarding entertainment. Each family must set its own rules on the quantity of screen time, as well as the content allowed to be viewed by children, while keeping in mind how to grow and be flexible in these rules as the children get older.
When there are children of varying ages in the house, it may even seem more difficult to play guardian of the television, but stay aware nonetheless. Using any electronics close to bedtime can make it more difficult for a child to fall asleep quickly.
Watching a show or movie meant for an older sibling can lead to nightmares, or at the least, scary thoughts, for the youngest ones. Even watching the news can cause anxiety for some youngsters. Be aware of your own children’s developmental levels and keep television viewing options age appropriate.
When your child has a regular bedtime routine, he or she will find comfort in its repetition. For example, after putting on pajamas, brushing teeth and hair, and using the restroom one last time, read a book together. Spend a few minutes talking about the highlights of the day. Sing her favorite song, tuck him in under the blankets "just right".
Say the special good night to the favorite stuffed animal. Recite a trusty, beloved phrase that can be all “yours” – “I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always; As long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be”, or “I love you to the moon and back.” Whatever routine you put into place, try to do it every night, the same way.
If a babysitter or grandparent is the one putting your child to bed on a certain night, share the details of the bedtime routine. Knowing what to expect will help alleviate some of the child's anxiety about going to bed.
Maybe by now you've successfully dealt with the fears your child was expressing. The challenge now might be making a successful night in bed a routine. Why not give an incentive? If your child stays in bed by herself all night, that deserves a reward. Give a sticker for every night through which your child stays in bed.
Place the stickers on a special chart or poster and give a reward when a certain number of stickers have been given. Sometimes the motivation of receiving a treat will be enough encouragement for him to forget those last lingering shadows of fears. Afraid this sounds too close to bribery?
Think of it this way: if you present a reward as an achievement instead of a bribe, it can be a positive affirmation - and visual reminder - of goals chased and achieved!
Take some time to walk around the bedroom with your child before lights-out, maybe even in the middle of the day. Present it as a “tour” of his room. The two of you can look under the bed, in the closet, behind the door, etc., to check out any of the places that may be inspiring some fear at bedtime. Reiterate that her bedroom is a safe place.
You can count how many steps it takes to get to the restroom, to show him or her how easily accessible it is, just in case it is needed in the middle of the night. Do the same tour when it gets darker, but this time with a flashlight. Showing the same spots and objects to her again will reinforce the idea that her room is the same place it was during the day, with nothing additional to frighten her.
Keep the tour fun and lighthearted; your encouraging attitude will influence your child in a positive manner.
Finding ways to spend time in the bedroom while in the dark can help demystify the darkness itself, and make it less scary. You could set up a child’s tent or teepee on the floor to play camping, or even just let your child sleep in sleeping bags on the floor. Kids love the glow-in-the-dark sticker stars that you can put on their ceilings.
Place them randomly, or, if you’re so inclined, make them look like the actual night sky so you can observe the constellations. Play flashlight tag. Read books by flashlight or by the light of a lamp. Pretend you have a campfire and sit around it to tell stories to each other. Dance around to music with glow sticks.
Ideas for non-scary games in the dark abound on the Internet; search away and be creative! (Glow-in-the-dark bowling or ring toss, anyone?)
This discussion hearkens back to playing the line between being logical and being compassionate. When a child is afraid of spooky creatures, some creativity is often needed to overcome the fear. Some parents use “monster spray”, which they squirt under the bed, in the closets, and anywhere else that their children say “monsters” may be lurking in order to banish them.
Regular fabric freshener sprays can be used, or homemade options containing calming and sleep-encouraging lavender essential oil are also popular. On the other hand, some parents wonder whether an activity like squirting “monster spray” would be actually feeding into the child’s fear, by implicitly showing her that there is something to be scared of, or that you believe in the monster as well.
Only you as a parent know your child, and can determine the tricks and tools that may best help him at this stage in his development. At least we can all say that "monster spray" is a creative option!
Sometimes all your child needs is a little extra motivation to stay in bed all night. Letting him know what time he can get out of bed can be something helpful in the process. What can a parent do for children who can’t yet tell time?
For children who know their numbers, some parents place sticky notes or cardboard over all but the spot signifying the hour; when the number on the clock shows a 7, for instance, then the child can get out of bed. Of course, most toddlers and many preschoolers aren’t able to identify numbers, let alone tell time with them.
There are several options for clocks that can be set to light up at a certain time, some with separate nighttime and nap time settings. When the clock is yellow or red, it’s time to stay in bed; when the clock lights up with green hue, it’s time to get up! The novelty may turn the bedtime process into a fun game.
Along with having a steady routine, holding onto a comfort object may be beneficial to children. (For some, this may already be an automatic – and obvious - part of bedtime, and the child wouldn’t dream of going to sleep without it.)
Some children have a favorite stuffed animal while others have security blankets, a la Linus in the Peanuts gang.
These much loved objects can give reassurance to the child while his parents are out of the room. If you want to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak, consider getting a stuffed animal that lights up from inside using a timer. This would provide both ease in falling asleep and a little night light!
It is best to limit the number of items allowed in bed with your child, so as to not encourage her to use them as playthings instead of comfort items.
If you were scared of the dark when you were younger, how did your parents help you cope? Make sure to talk about this with your child, showing you understand and relate to his or her fears.
Discuss how you overcame your anxieties: What did your parents say to you? What mental talk did they teach you to use when you were scared? What routines were put into place to help make you feel comfortable? What helped you not be as scared?
Share a story about when you were anxious over something, either in your childhood or as an adult. Children can learn to understand that, although we will never be completely without fear, we can learn to conquer our fears - or act in spite of them.
Have you used any of these tools with your own children? What else has helped your family when your child is scared of the dark?
Most parents know the struggle of the nightlight. Your child is scared of the dark and needs something to shed a little light on the situation, so to speak. However, then this very light ends up being just enough to let them see too well into his or her room (Look - Toys! Books! Games!), and pretty soon you have a child staying up late, playing around when he should be sleeping.
In addition, studies show that too much light after the sun goes down messes with our circadian rhythms and sleep patterns; we’re made to respond to darkness by feeling sleepy and to light by feeling more awake. Some parents may choose to not put nightlights in their kid's rooms at all for these reasons.
If you choose to utilize nightlights, the key is to find one with just enough light to enable the child to feel safe (15 watts seems to be a good level, some experts say), yet not enough brightness to disrupt the process of her falling asleep. Look around - some even have timers or dimming capabilities!
Sources: Cincinnati Children's Hospital