Does your preschooler say she’s scared at bedtime?
Is there a lot of back and forth reassuring there are no monsters in closets, perhaps even spraying “monster spray” to ward them off?
Does bedtime take three times as long as it should because she’s stalling with one more drink of water, one more hug, etc?
If your child is stalling at bedtime because she’s scared, and you can’t think of an event or conversation that would have caused the fear, and you’ve been proactive with the tips below, it’s likely an attention getting strategy to keep you in the room longer and put off actually going to sleep. Remember that even negative attention (ie mom getting fed up and “losing it”) is attention, and for some kids, it’s better than nothing!
In my experience, there are a few things you SHOULD do to make sure there isn’t anything contributing to making your child scared:
- Have a calming bedtime routine – no being chased upstairs by “the boogie man”, just a calming bath and/or storytime, maybe have your child talk about one or two things that made her happy that day, etc. You want to end the day on a happy, positive note.
- Have an early enough bedtime. Remember that when a child is overtired, any fears or worries will be exacerbated and it’ll be harder for her body to calm down and fall asleep if she’s “wired”.
- Make sure she has a lovey to sleep with and remind her that she can hug it whenever she feels like she’s a little scared or lonely.
- YOU lie in her bed with the lights off (not with her, while she’s brushing her teeth – otherwise you’ll open up a can of worms that she wants you to lie down with her every night until she falls asleep) and check to see if there are any scary shadows that might contribute to her fears. Also listen for any odd noises – a branch brushing up against the side of the house, radiators clanking, etc – and use a white noise machine if you find any potentially scary sounds.
- Be aware of what your child is exposed to (tv and movies, conversations, etc). A great resource is Common Sense Media that gives reviews and age ratings for kids by age.If he shows any sign of being scared of a character or movie scene turn it off and say, “That ___ (scene, character) in the movie wasn’t ___ (very fun to watch, being very nice, etc) so let’s turn that off now. I like happy movies, don’t you? Why don’t we ____ (play outside, watch a different safe show, etc) instead?” Two families I’ve worked with recently used this strategy and said it worked well. One mom further explained that her daughter liked that the mom also thought the movie was a little scary – it validated her fear, but the fact that her mom turned it off immediately showed mom was in control of the situation.
- If you or your spouse regularly leave for work or business trips before your child wakes up, be sure to talk about that at non-bedtime times. I’ve seen children be afraid of going to sleep because a) they didn’t know if which parent would be home when they woke up or b) if one would be leaving early on a business trip and not saying goodbye. In both cases, when the parents talked about the next morning or next business trip at dinnertime, the issues went away. Older preschool kids especially like to be kept in the loop! You can share how you’ll stay connected while you’re gone – this article has some great suggestions.
One thing I wouldn’t recommend is doing the “room check” or spraying for monsters. This just validates that there could be monsters!
If you can pinpoint an event or conversation that caused the fear and your child is old enough (~4yrs and up), a book I love is “Mommy, Daddy, I had a bad dream!” by Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. It’s about a child (actually, the character is a kangaroo!) learning how to understand the cause of his bad dreams that often have him running to his parents’ room in the middle of the night.
The nightmares depicted aren’t scary in a dark and stormy night kind of way…they are more upsetting situations for a child (i.e. not getting dessert for 3 days, being locked out of the house, growing so big he couldn’t get a hug from daddy, being left by a friend). None of the illustrations have monsters and won’t scare your child.
The parents teach Joey (the kangaroo) that “dreams are stories we tell ourselves for a reason. We just have to understand the reason.” After each bad dream, they ask him if something upsetting happened to him that day and he begins the process of understanding his bad dream.
The bottom line: when a child says she’s scared to go to sleep – and you can’t pinpoint a trigger for this fear – it’s usually a stalling technique. If you can pinpoint a reason (whether it’s a specific event or fear of bad dreams), I’d recommend the book above!
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