How Parents can Help Toddlers with Bedtime Fears

Many parents seeking sleep for their toddlers (and themselves) want to know, “what do I do about my child’s nighttime fears?”  One mother who recently posed this question said she didn’t want to put a band- aid on her toddler’s fears but actually wanted him to have coping strategies.  What a smart mom!  She may not have realized it, but she sought to put an emotional intelligence tool in her child’s life skills toolbox.

Quite simply put, Emotional Intelligence is first, acknowledging the presence of an emotion, and second, managing it effectively.  Research has shown that kids who have these skills boast notable benefits.

As parents we are tempted to jump in and fix common problems for our kids.  It is a noble gesture but what if we could teach them to fix it instead?   We are now empowering them with a potentially lifelong skill.

Let’s go back to nighttime fears as an example.  Three year old Jacob is afraid of monsters under his bed.  They come out at night when the lights are off and his parents are absent.  Telling him that there are no monsters doesn’t work.  In his case, neither does a nightlight or giving him “magic spray” to spray the monsters away. He wants his mom or dad to stay with him until he falls asleep.  Sound familiar?

Here are some suggestions that are not meant to be “one size fits all” advice.  Take what works and toss what doesn’t.

1.  Rest assured that Jacob is behaving very normally.  Pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton states that fears appear during times of rapid development toward independence.  As if this wasn’t enough, toddlers are also struggling to balance their perceptions of reality and make-believe.  The subtle stressors in their world show up in their room at night.

2.  Jacob’s fear is very real to him. Validate his emotion. This might sound like “Wow, Jacob, I can hear how scared you are.” When Jacob is validated, he learns that he can trust what he is feeling inside.  We want our kids to be able to trust their own emotions rather than having someone else label them with one.  (This is important for all kids including teens.)  With his parent’s validation, Jacob learns that his parents “get it” and he feels increasingly comfortable in approaching them with new problems.  What a beautiful technique to show our kids that they can come to us for anything.

3.  Jacob’s parents might consider sharing their own childhood fears so he doesn’t feel alone.  Dr. Brazelton suggests doing this briefly and lightheartedly so as not to accentuate the child’s fears.

4.  Young children in particular often need help in developing a vocabulary to express what they are feeling inside.  Older children might just need to be reminded to actually use the right words to express themselves.  Jacob might need help to learn words such as “afraid”, “scared”, “nervous”, or “lonely”.  With these words he can communicate more effectively.  Both parent and child are on the same page and problem solving can begin.

5.  Allow Jacob to be a part of the solution.  Ask him open ended questions such as “What would you like to do about those monsters?”  Or, “How can you scare the monsters and make them run away forever?”  If he’s stumped for ideas, give him three of your own and ask him which one he thinks is the best one.  Besides dealing with the monsters, Jacob is being taught the art of decision making and problem solving.  Done repeatedly, he could become very creative with his solutions.

6.  Consider following up with Jacob during daytime hours when his fear is lessened.  Be careful not to over discuss the problem or you may very well re-ignite it.

7.  Congratulate Jacob for his efforts and or any positive results in overcoming his fear.  “Look what you did!”  “You’re not afraid anymore!”  A sincerely toned parent will be rewarded with genuine pride in their child’s expression.

It is important to note that all children are unique.  Some react more frequently or intensely to their fears.  It won’t help to compare your child with another unless of course they are both brainstorming on how to get monster’s out of their bedrooms!

Reader comments are cherished.  What ideas would you add to this list?