Does she think monsters are going to get her when the lights go out? This can make bedtime particularly unsettling.
It’s perfectly normal for a child to be afraid of the dark – it’s one of the most common childhood fears. The dark covers up things she can’t see, and she has a vivid imagination. Children have a way to go before they can clearly distinguish between real and imagined. It will take time before she reconciles the true dangers of the world versus imagined dangers with how they relate to her everyday existence and her level of safety and security.
What messages are you sending?
Your response to your child’s concerns will tell her whether she truly has something to fear, or if everything is safe and sound. The key to handling your child’s fears of imagined things, such as monsters in the dark, is to not only say that things are okay but to act as though they are. If you make a big deal about her fear and if you keep looking under the bed or checking the closet to reassure her that everything is okay, your daughter may begin to wonder why you continue to look – are you expecting to find something?
While you don’t want to overreact to your child’s fear of the dark, you do want to be sensitive to your child’s feelings. Understand that, while the object of your child’s fear is not real, your child’s fear is. The feelings of fear that she has are valid and the situation calls for a diplomatic and sensitive approach.
What’s real and what’s pretend?
This is a good time to teach your child how to discern between valid and imagined fears, by helping him to learn the difference between real and fantasy. You might discuss the differences between a rabbit you see at the zoo, Bugs Bunny, a stuffed bunny, and rabbit he can imagine in his mind. You can talk about the pictures he creates in his head as you read a book to him or when you tell him a story.
Find ways to help your child confront and overcome his fears. If dark shadows are creating suspicious shapes in the night, spend some time together in your child’s room in the dark, finding spooky shapes or making shadows; make a game of guessing what they really are, then turn on the light to see what the shapes really are.
You might give your child a flashlight to keep at his bedside to use if he wakes up. Lighting the hallway to your room or the bathroom with a nightlight is helpful if he leaves his bed during the night. Keeping the closet and bedroom doors open – or closed – can help; ask your child which she’d like better.
Some children may be reassured if you explain the sounds of the night: the heater coming on, branches hitting the house in the wind, someone flushing a toilet. If strange sounds are explained they lose their ability to frighten a child.
Leaving soothing music playing or white noise sounds running can be helpful to some children. The familiar sound is easier to fall asleep to and can cover the sounds of strange creaks and other noises.
Get a pet?
If you’re open to the idea, put a small pet like a lizard, turtle, or even a fish tank in your child’s room. Having this pet for company might be enough for him to no longer feel alone. A warning for you from this mom-of-many-family-pets: Keep in mind that a young child cannot take care of his own pet, so all the pet care will be your responsibility. And do your homework - don’t choose nocturnal animals who are noisy at night or those that may bite or scratch your child.
Take the mystery out of the dark
To make the dark less mysterious, plan a few fun nighttime activities. Building a campfire or taking a stargazing walk can be fun. Having a candlelight dinner or building a tent in the family room and telling stories (not scary ones!) by flashlight are often well received by even the most sensitive child. Any of these ideas will help your child make friends with the darkness so that it won’t seem so foreign.
Monitor scary input
Avoid having your child watch scary TV shows or movies or read books that contain things that scare her. This rule applies to any time of the day, as children have good memories and can remember at bedtime something they saw that morning.
Imaginary Beasts…imaginary solutions
Since the creatures that scare your child are a figment of her imagination, you may be able to banish them with an imaginary solution – a spray-bottle of monster remover (water) or a magic wand are the two most common tools used.
The power of prayer
If your faith is an important part of your family’s life, you have a powerful weapon against any nighttime fear. Teach your child a comforting prayer to recite anytime he feels afraid. Teach him how to rely on his faith in times of worry, to know that he is being watched over and is safe day and night.
Create a peaceful, pleasant bedtime routine
Many bedtime problems, including nighttime fears, can be waylaid with a specific, regular and comforting bedtime routine. You may want to include a session of happy thoughts just before lights out: remembering the fun highlights of the day, or thinking of fun events upcoming. This can direct your child’s before sleep thoughts towards pleasant ones.
Tips are from The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers & Preschoolers by Elizabeth Pantley