Fears are a normal part of life for children. Most kids will go through phases of various fears: afraid of the dark, afraid of the monster under the bed (or in the closet), dogs, strangers. Luckily the majority of fears are temporary and subside on their own. Although bedtime fears also will ease as children get older, the interruption of sleep can had a negative impact on a child’s (and a parent’s) ability to function during the day. Kids who do not get enough quality sleep will have a harder time following directions, managing their emotions, and concentrating at school.
Kids who have fears of the dark (or something in the dark) or who have frequent nightmares generally will have problems falling asleep. These kids need to feel in control of their fears and their environment. So, here are a few suggestions to help your child assert their control so they can start getting a good night’s sleep:
• Acknowledge their fear. Your child’s fear is real even if you don’t understand it or it is irrational. Let your child know that you understand they are afraid. If you also had fears as a child, talk to your kid about this and how you coped with it. This might help to normalize their fears and let them know that the fears are manageable. Stories are also great for normalizing things for kids. Check out your local library or bookstore for books that fit your child’s situation.
• Differentiate between encouragement and ridicule. While you might mean well telling your 7-year old that they are too old to be afraid of the dark, they will likely take this to mean you think they are a baby. Instead, try letting them know that they have the power to overcome their fears.
• Environmental controls. Let your child sleep with a nightlight or with a flashlight next to her bed if she thinks it will help. Many children are comforted by one special stuffed animal. Have your child help you check the room before bed if they think there is a boogie man in the closet. If he can see it for himself (before he gets scared) he can use self-talk later to remind himself that he and dad checked the whole room and found nothing.
• Emotional controls. Kids with fears are capable of learning to rationalizing their fears. You can teach your child to tell himself that there is no such thing as monsters, that the boogie man outside the window is just the shadow of the tree. This is where letting them have a flashlight comes in handy; they can check out their hypotheses themselves before running in to wake up mom or dad. Teach kids that they can tell whatever it is they are afraid of to go away and leave them alone.
• Nightmare management. Older kids who have nightmares can keep a journal about their dreams. This can be written or drawn (depending on your child’s strengths and abilities). Later, you and your child can discuss the nightmare and may be able to figure out where the nightmare came from (maybe they saw a scary movie and parts of it showed up in the dream). Also, there are numerous anecdotal stories about dream catchers working to rid a person of nightmares. Kids would enjoy getting to pick out their own or even making one and this would increase their sense of control over the nightmares. You can also teach your child to use imagery to picture somewhere safe, comforting, and relaxing before going to sleep.
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