Battling the Bedtime Blues - Part III

In Parts I and II we've been talking about children who have trouble staying in bed. We discussed setting up a consistent bedtime routine, eliminating sugar, caffeine and television, and defined an effective disciplinary technique for the challenging child. In this article, we're going to discuss children who express fear at bedtime.

By about age fourteen months, many children develop nighttime fears. According to Frank and Theresa Caplan, in their book "The Second Twelve Months of Life", this occurs because children at this age become capable of playing imaginatively. When this happens, they have the ability to "...play out scary characters in dreams and nightmares..." They further suggest that it's not until about age four that a child will be capable of distinguishing fantasy from reality.

When a child is afraid at night, a consistent bedtime routine and the elimination of television prior to bed become crucial elements in easing his fears. The bedtime routine will give him a sense of security and the elimination of television will diminish vivid images which may prey upon his subconscious and turn into nightmares after dark. Once you've instituted these two steps, and if your child is still expressing fear, it is time to take action.

First of all, it's extremely important that you do not belittle, deny or ignore your child's fears. Likewise, it is important not to make light of her fear, even if you believe it is more of a manipulation technique than actual fear. Many parents fall into these patterns because they believe that if they acknowledge that their child is afraid, they will validate the fear and somehow make it more "real". However, acknowledgment of a child's feelings works in just the opposite way. Once a child feels that her parents are sympathetic, she feels safer, because, after all, if her parents truly understand her and they're not afraid, then maybe there isn't anything to be afraid of after all.

So, when a child expresses fear, the first step is to verbally acknowledge that fear. It's important to remain tentative in your acknowledgment, however, so that if he's not feeling afraid, you won't unknowingly plant that seed. Acknowledgment of fear might sound something like this: "Seems like you're a little scared," or "You sound afraid." When the child agrees, you can reassure him that it's safe, being careful not to deny his fear. You might say something like "This apartment is safe. You do sound afraid though." You might even add, "I guess sometimes nighttime is a little scary for you." You'll probably get agreement from your child throughout this process of acknowledgment. He may even escalate his fearful behavior, clinging to you or burying his head in his covers. Don't despair! While it may seem as though you've made matters worse, letting him know that you empathize is a crucial part of this technique. Don't skip it!

When you've acknowledged your child's fear (and I suggest that you verbally acknowledge her fear at least three times), the next step is to ask her if there is anything she can think of that would help her feel less afraid. Though her answer will probably be "no", giving her this opportunity to solve her problem is ultimately empowering.

At this point it's important not to offer advice of your own. For example, if she's afraid there's a monster under her bed, DON'T say "Let's look under the bed! Then you'll see there isn't a monster, and you won't feel afraid." This is far too logical. Keep in mind that nighttime fears are irrational, and attempting to combat them with logic and reasoning is a futile process. You'll only end up feeling frustrated yourself, and lengthening the discussion in the process.

Once you've asked if he can think of anything that would help, you have the opportunity to offer suggestions. Suggestions are different from advice in that they are phrased differently. To make a suggestion say "I wonder if it would help you feel less afraid if __________." Beginning with the words "I wonder if..." is extremely important. When suggestions are phrased in this way, they empower the child to take responsibility for his own courage. Eventually, he will think to himself, "Gee, I wonder if there's anything I can do about this."

I suggest that you make three suggestions, phrasing each as I describe above. If he accepts one of your suggestions, you needn't make any more. More than likely, however, your child's response to each will be "no, that won't help". If this happens, then it's time to conclude the dialogue. To do so, say something along the lines of the following: "This seems like a difficult problem. You're good at coming up with solutions, though, and I'll bet you can think of something that would help you feel safer. When you do, let me know and I'll come help with whatever it is. Now it's bedtime, and I'm going to go into the other room. Call me if you think of what will make you feel safer."

By ending the dialogue and leaving the solution in your child's hands, you empower her in coming up with solutions for her own problems. In addition, you say with your actions that there is nothing to be afraid of. If you stay in the room and play "protector", however, the message to your child is that maybe there is something to be afraid of, otherwise, why would you feel the need to stay? Furthermore, your child will clearly get the picture that you believe she can't handle it on her own.

Most often, when you get up to leave, your child will quickly come up with a solution to the problem. Many children at this point will request the light be left on, or another stuffed animal added to the bed. The "quick solution" surprises many parents, but makes sense if you think about it. Children love closure as much as adults do, and once your child realizes that you are going to withdraw your attention, and that it really is up to him, he'll rise to the challenge. When he's named something that will "help him feel safer", he'll feel compelled to carry through with his choice and go to sleep.

While one night of handling bedtime fears in this way probably won't eliminate your child's fears forever, a patient attitude on your part, as well as a lot of empathy and respect for your child's feelings will. In the process, you will build your child's courage, help her come up with effective solutions to her problems, and ultimately give her the feeling that nighttime is a safe and comfortable time.