Every parent of a preschooler knows the bedtime complaints: “I’m thirsty,” “I’m hungry,” “I’m scared.” But most parents expect that fear of monsters under the bed will drop away before elementary school. Not so, say experts. In fact, fear of the dark may be one of the longest lasting childhood worries.
Toddlers first experience nighttime scares when their imaginations develop ahead of their ability to distinguish fantasy from reality. By age 7, children are able to understand real from pretend, but this awareness can trigger new issues. For example, 7- and 8-year-olds think about death, illness, and injury and realize that bad things can happen to good people. Thus, it’s not surprising that they fear the dark.
First, show your child affection and assure her she’s safe. Tell her that you believe in her ability to handle her fears and work together to decide on tools that might help (e.g. a noise machine, music box, or night-light). Finally, think about any stressors that could be contributing to your child’s fears: Divorce? Moving? New baby? Most fears come and go, usually becoming acute for only a few weeks. If the problem lingers or prevents your child from sleeping, reach out to a counselor.
- Make it a game. Children are more likelyto face their fears in a play context, so try glow-stick tag or a game of “follow the leader through the darkness.”
- Flip the fantasy. Your child can use his imagination to take control of his fear. For example, help him picture using a wand or zapper to turn a scary mo nster into a cuddly rabbit.Or support him to be the superhero in his own rescue from a bad guy.
- Keep your sleep. Allowing your child to climb into bed with you does nothing to help him face and cope with his fears. In fact, it may exacerbate them, making him dependent on you to “protect” or rescue him.
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