“My child has developed a new fear of going to sleep,” parents of young children often tell me. “Is this normal?” The short answer is, yes.
Developmentally, children between the ages of about three and about six are learning about power and identity, and also learning the difference between pretend and real. This is often the stage where much dress-up play occurs, along with rich imaginations and inventions of stories about superheroes, princesses, “good” and “bad” guys, and more. The purpose of this play is to help them understand the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, male and female. Often, they do this in an exaggerated and very polarized way, not seeing the gray areas and nuances that adults do.
In addition, distinguishing between what is imaginary and what reality is not a “flip the switch” kind of event—it’s a gradual process to discern what’s real and what’s not. Monsters, bad guys, and other scary things can seem very real to young children—or at least they can be uncertain about what’s real, especially at the vulnerable time of day right before sleep. Here are some tips to help if this is a concern for you or someone you know:
- Establish or re-establish a calming bedtime routing that is predictable each night.
- Read calm, uplifting stories before bed.
- Consider some favorite calm music for your child to listen to while going to sleep.
- Allow your child a security object, like a blanket or stuffed animal.
- Reassure your child you will comfort him or her if she wakes up afraid.
- Allow your child to view scary movies, television shows, books or images, especially within two hours of bedtime. Most Disney movies are actually geared toward kids 10 and up, and many have scary characters. Even if they don’t appear scared while watching, the concerns may surface at bedtime.
- Underestimate the reality of their fear about things that aren’t real. The object may not be real, but your child’s fear is. You might say something like, “Even though you know monsters aren’t real, you’re still scared.”
- Insist on a dark room with a closed door. Consider a night light and leaving the door open at least a crack.
Some parents find it helpful to make up a story with their child’s help about the child defeating whatever it is they are afraid of, by growing tall, or shrinking the monster with a wand, or some variation.
With a little imagination on your part, you’ll help your child manage his or her fears in no time.