Nighttime fears and worries are an unpleasant yet normal part of your young child’s healthy development. As the imagination flourishes, so can scary thoughts that would not have occurred to your child before. Here are some tips on helping your child cope when things go bump in the night.
Acknowledging the fear itself
Whenever there are scary dreams or nighttime fears, it’s important to acknowledge and validate your child’s feelings. Allow your child to talk about exactly what she is feeling, and encourage her to identify the feelings clearly. Saying things like “That sounds really scary” or “I can understand why you would feel scared” can help.
Zombies, Ghosts and Monsters
While you want to acknowledge your child’s feelings, but that doesn’t mean buying into the subject of the fears if they aren’t realistic. If your child is afraid of ghosts, zombies or monsters, avoid rituals like checking under the bed or using “monster spray”. These tactics ultimately end up reinforcing the fears by confirming that there may actually be something to be afraid of.
Instead, try talking about how amazing imagination is, and how it’s possible to picture all kinds of things in our heads. We sometimes can picture scary things, but also nice things. Together, close your eyes and picture something which is completely non-threatening but imaginary, such as a purple giraffe. Add lots of details to this imaginary picture you are both seeing with your eyes closed. Make it feel very real for both of you. Afterwards, talk about how well we can make something SEEM real in our imagination, even though it is NOT real. It can’t be in the room with us, touch us, or hurt us in any way.
Tell her a story about something you were afraid of as a child. Make it something that to her would seem relatively harmless, almost silly. But let her know that you were truly afraid at the time. Be light on detail when describing the thing you were afraid of, but very vivid in describing exactly how you felt. Then explain how you came to realize that whatever it was wasn’t real. It came from your imagination, just as your child’s fears come from hers.
Nighttime fears based on actual events
What about when your child’s fears stem from real events they might hear about from the news or elsewhere? First, avoid over-explaining things and giving your child more information than she needs. Be calm and matter-of-fact. Ask her what specifically she is afraid will happen. Let her know that you understand that it can feel scary, but you and other caring adults are there to keep her safe.
Just as with imaginary fears, try telling your child a story about something you feared as a child. Just as in the other case, you want to describe what you were afraid of fairly neutrally. Save the rich detail and expressiveness for when you describe how scared you felt. Then describe how you got past the feelings by understanding that the grownups in your life were there to protect you.
Keeping it simple
As if often the case with young children, less is more. Yes, do validate their feelings and yes, do reassure them. But don’t linger too long in conversation at any one time. Quick chats, stories and anecdotes win out over long, drawn-out discussions every time. This is especially true after bedtime!
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