How to Tackle Fears at Bedtime
Being fearful of things is super common in the toddler and preschool years. Fears can start from anywhere. They may have seen something scary on TV or in a book or they may just have a very active imagination. The other classic way fears start is that we accidentally plant ideas in our kid’s head. “Why are you crying, are you scared of the dark?”
Common childhood fears include fear of the dark, fear of heights, loud noises, dogs, “monsters,” going to the doctor or any one of a million other things your child can come up with! My daughter developed a fear of the soapy water in the bath after she rinses soap off. She refused to take a bath for like 2 weeks!
At night it’s usually fear of the dark, monsters, being alone or shadows that tend to derail bedtime and make getting out of the room nearly impossible for you.
Regardless of how these fears started, how we as parents react to them is a key factor in how much or how little these fears affect bedtime.
The first thing to consider is if your child has a real fear or if it’s just an excuse they’re using to try and get you to stay in the room after lights out. You’ll usually have a gut feeling about this. 😉
If it’s a real fear, you will probably hear about it during the day, too. Your child not wanting to be in a dark theater or in a room with the lights off. Your child not being able to leave your side long enough for you to go to the bathroom alone. If you’re seeing the fear come up during the day, your child may have a real fear of the dark or being alone which may extend to bedtime, too.
But, if your child is happy playing by themselves at home and doesn’t seem to mind being in a dark place during the day, then they may be putting on a theatrical performance for you at nighttime. Why? To get some extra attention. To prevent you from leaving the room at bedtime. Your response to the fear is a very strong driver of their behavior.
In either case, the first thing you need to do is get yourself in the right headspace.
You want your child to grow up to be resilient and able to regulate their own emotions, right? I hope so! I think we can all agree that these are pretty valuable and vital personality traits.
Well, typical childhood bedtime fears are a great learning opportunity for teaching these skills. It can be tough since our natural inclination is to prevent our child from ever being in distress, but this reaction won’t help them in the long run. In order for your child to learn self-reliance and bravery, they need to be able to face situations and learn to calm themselves down.
So, by running back in the room to reassure them, turn on more lights or stay with them until they fall asleep, you’re robbing them of a valuable opportunity to learn to rely on themselves.
The other unintended consequence of running back in the room is it’s delivering the message that maybe there actually IS something to be fearful of. Think about it from your child’s perspective... if they say they are scared of monsters and cry for you to come lay with them and you do it... it’s reinforcing that they DO need you in order to be safe. If they were really safe without you, why would you keep coming back?
So, hopefully now you see how your reaction to the fear may be a big part of why it persists despite your best efforts to convince them that there is nothing to be scared of.
So, what do you do instead?
Respect the fear - Take the fear seriously. Ask questions about it. What exactly is scary? Where did they hear about it? If it’s something in the room, lay in their bed and look from their perspective. You want to make your child feel heard.
Problem-solve together - If it’s a shadow, can you shift some things around in the room to change it? If it’s too dark under the bed, can you put some glow-in-the-dark bracelets under there to provide some light? If it’s the smoke detector blinking, can you cover it with a piece of electrical tape? If it’s a scary closet, can you check it together before bedtime? Working together helps your child feel empowered which helps to build up that self-reliance.
Find bedtime books - Bedtime books can be a great way to reduce fears or just put a silly spin on them to ease tension. ‘The Invisible String’ is my favorite for kids who don’t want to be alone. ‘Dragon Night’ is a great one for fear of the dark. ‘Monsters Love Underpants’ re-frames monsters as silly instead of scary. ‘Harold and the Purple Crayon’ is great to show kids how to use the power of their imagination in a good way.
The final and most important step in eliminating those bedtime fears that are keeping you stuck in your kids room...
Be confident in steps 1, 2 & 3
Let your child know you think they can tackle their fears, even if they aren’t so sure yet. Your confidence will be contagious. And your consistency is what will get them over it quickly.
Remember, teaching your child how to manage their fears is going to help them develop the self-confidence and independence that you want them to have as they grow up.
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