“Mommy, keep the hall light on!” my 6-year-old reminds me as I tuck his beloved blanket securely around his slender frame and lean over to kiss him good night.
I’ve plugged in a night light in his room and another in the adjoining bathroom. The orange glow of the street lamp outside bounces off the wall over his bed. He already seems bathed in light, but I flip the hall light on anyway.
Ten minutes later, I’m rewarded with the sweet, even-keeled breathing of a child asleep.
I’m one of the lucky ones. According to Dr. Jane Sosland, a clinical child and adolescent psychologist, nearly 30 percent of children have sleep problems and oftentimes, bedtime battles can last well past midnight.
Fear of the dark is a normal part of development and one of the most common childhood problems plaguing families of school-age children. Kids who are afraid of the dark take nearly an hour longer than others to fall asleep. Without a good night’s sleep, children can suffer behavior and mood issues and have trouble concentrating at school. How can you best support a frightened kiddo?
Discuss the fear
Listen carefully to your child — without playing into their fears — to see if you can identify what triggered his fear. Fear of the darkness might be caused by a fairy tale before bed, a frightening image that wormed its way into your child’s psyche, or even a stressful event during the school day during recess.
“Maybe somebody was mean to them on the playground,” Sosland says. “It could also be there’s some separation anxiety that occurs during the day, as well as at night, in terms of being able to sleep by themselves,” she adds.
Many times your child’s fear won’t make sense, but don’t ignore the moment or just hope that he’ll fall asleep. By all means, go to your child and listen to what he tells you about his fears, taking them seriously but without overreacting. It’s important not to dismiss or ridicule his fears. Hear his feelings and reflect them back to him with words: “I can see you’re really scared.” Help your child feel safe and supported, and once he’s calm, gently coax more out of him.
Find out what’s inside your child’s mind, says Tamar Chansky, Ph. D., a clinical psychologist and author of Freeing Your Child From Anxiety (Harmony; 2014). Does your child think there’s a monster in the closet? It’s important to figure out the source of your child’s fear so you can move on. October brings a large volume of frightening images to the community, so be aware of that.
As kids wind down after a busy day and the quiet of the night sets in, they may begin to replay scary images in their heads that they saw during the day in books, movies, video games or in the grocery aisle. Pair those visuals with the strange night-time creaks of the house and a shadow suddenly appearing to move across the wall, and you’ve got a wide-eyed kid at midnight. Here’s what to do:
• Limit exposure to violent images and turn off the news when your youngster is around. According to a 2016 study published in Frontiers in Pediatrics, exposure to repeated images of terrorism in the media can negatively affect a child’s emotional health. “These almost live events can cause feelings of unsafety, hopelessness, and helplessness, which are often externalized by conduct problems,” the researchers write.
But alarming images aren’t the only source of fear in children.
“Kids are quite imaginative,” says Sosland. “They imagine all sorts of things in the dark that aren’t there,” she adds.
Young children often can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality. If they imagine a monster in the closet, in their mind it must be there.
“Fears are not necessarily something that can be reasoned or rationalized so reassuring children tends not work because they just look for more and more reassurance,” adds Sosland.
So if you’re dealing with a child scared of a monster in the closet or under the bed, look together in the closet and under the bed. If your child can only fall asleep with her ceiling light on, it’s OK, but not ideal, since it’s a form of avoidance. Over time, as he’s ready, dim the light. Gradually move toward the soft, warm glow of a lamp, then a closet light, and finally a night light that is yellow or orange in color.
• Work on breathing techniques. If your child already struggles with anxiety, teach him coping mechanisms during the day that you can employ at night, too. For example, have a younger child blow bubbles to calm down. Teach older children deep belly breathing. Have them breathe in for five seconds and slowly breath out as if you have a birthday candle in front of you.
“But you don’t want to blow it out. You just want the ‘flame’ to flicker,” Sosland advises.
• Offer a transitional object. Comfort your youngster with a stuffed animal or a special blanket to help him sleep. If you’ve become your child’s favorite teddy bear, begin phasing out his reliance on you by getting up just as he’s falling asleep. If he starts to protest, promise that you’ll check in on him in five minutes.
• Set up a sleep-promoting environment. White noise, fans, sound machines and soft background music can push back the deafening silence of the night. Also make sure your child’s bed is comfortable, the temperature in the room is cool and put away any distracting electronic devices.
• Have your child take some control of the environment. Let him place the nightlight where he wants it and bring a special lovey or blanket to bed. By letting them take some ownership in the arrangement of their room, they will feel more comfortable.
• Stick to a bedtime routine. Take time to reminisce about happy events from the day. Listen to soothing music and put aside electronics. Read a calming, uplifting book together before bed. And help them come up with a positive image that they can picture as they’re drifting off to sleep like playing with their favorite pet.