Points to consider:
- Does your child know the difference between make-believe and reality? Nighttime fears occur more in children who have trouble with this distinction.
- How much stress does your child experience during the day? The greater the daytime stress the more likely there will be nighttime fears. If this is the case then it might be best to combat the daytime stress first which may solve the nighttime problems.
- Are you sending your child to bed at the right time? If you overestimate the amount of sleep that is needed and send the kids to bed too early they have more time to lay awake and dwell on their fears. We are more likely to overreact to emotional stimuli at the end of the day due to the brain’s amygdala, which plays a key role in processing emotions, being overactive.
- Although you may be tired and frustrated, try your best to remain calm and patient as this will help your child most.
- Reassurance is probably not going to work. Your child may know that monsters aren’t real but feel scared anyway. Stating that it’s all ok and there’s nothing to be worried about is probably going to leave the child feeling as though you just don’t get it, which can lead to more distress. What the child needs is a strategy to cope with the scared feelings.
- As a parent I know how hard it is to see our children hurting and the intense need to take that hurt away. It’s easy to do a quick look under the bed and in the wardrobe to check that there are no monsters. Although that may eliminate the immediate fear you have missed a key learning opportunity to help your child adapt and self-manage feelings of fear. So how do you do this?
- Focus on the feeling. I suggest you don’t focus on the object of the fear (e.g., monsters or robbers) but the emotion of fear itself. Then focus on helping solve the problem by brainstorming ideas that will make the child feel better.
- Validate the emotion. Although it may seem silly and trivial to you, dismissing the fear as “nothing to worry about” can result in the child feeling shame. What to say instead? You could try “You’re feeling pretty scared right now, aren’t you?”. You might notice that your child instantly comes down a notch from their heightened emotional state.
- Share a little of your past experience. “I remember feeling scared of the dark when I was your age. It’s not a nice feeling is it?”. This can help the child feel supported and demonstrates that you understand what your little one is going through.
- Problem solve. “What do you think you can do to feel better?” There’s a good chance that the child will answer “I don’t know”. You might try and tap into their creativity by responding with “How about you pretend that you know?”. I am sometimes surprised with the imaginative responses I get from children to this question.
Now of course there has to be limits. Although a child suggesting that “you can stay with me until I fall asleep” or “I can sleep in your bed” may be acceptable for some families, if it is not appropriate for your family then you might gently say “hmm that’s a good idea but that won’t work for me because I have some things I need to do” or “that’s a good idea but that might be a bit squishy and I get pretty grumpy in the morning if I don’t get a good night’s sleep!”. Listen to your child’s ideas and build on them if you need to until you come up with a satisfactory solution that works for both of you.
Validating the emotion and supporting children to come up with constructive solutions increases emotional intelligence. It helps them to regulate emotions and gives confidence that they have the power to make themselves feel better.
If your child is having chronic sleep disturbances or the anxiety escalates and interferes with daily functioning then you might like to consider consulting with a child psychologist for assistance. It may not be too long before everyone is back to getting a good night’s sleep!