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How to calm your child’s fears at nighttime

May 02, 2014

At least once a week, my 3-year-old daughter will ask me to lie down with her at bedtime. She usually asks for “mommy to snuggle me,” but the past few times has been because she is scared of the dark. This fear is very common among kids, and there are a few things that we can do as parents to help our children overcome their fear of the dark.

Kids usually start having a fear of nighttime at about the same age that their imagination really kicks in (about 2-3 years of age), but they are still too young to tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Most of our kids are busy and occupied during the day with activities, family, and friends, so when the nighttime quiet sets in, it can be a common time for a child to imagine a scary monster in the closet, or the “bogeyman” in the corner of the bedroom.

What can we do as parents to help relieve our child’s fears?

Communicate. One of the best things that we can do as parents is to communicate with our children about their fears. Stay calm as your child describes their fears. A few weeks ago, my daughter and I were passing police cars and we had a conversation about who the police are and what they do to help keep us safe. We talked about how there are some people who don’t follow the rules, and the police help make sure that everybody follows the rules. From this discussion, my daughter figured out that there were “bad” people in the world, and she became scared that a bad person would try to get her when she fell asleep. I started to reassure her that her windows were closed, the house is locked, and there are no “bad” people in the house at nighttime. This reassurance has helped her some, but I think she still enjoys asking for snuggles from her mommy at bedtime.

Be wary of scary phrases. Another thing that we can do as parents is to not use phrases like, “If you’re bad, the bogeyman/monster/scary thing is coming to get you.” Don’t “check under the bed one more time for monsters” at bedtime with them. Kids have wonderfully wild and active imaginations, and when they are lying in their quiet bed before they go to sleep, it’s very common for them to start imagining these threats somewhere in their bedroom or house. Don’t become frustrated with these fears, and reassure your child that these fears are normal. Remember that even though the monsters are not real, the fear is very real to your child.

Be mindful of TV shows. We can also make sure we know what our kids are watching on television. Many cartoons contain violent images that may not be age-appropriate for your child, and those images may also promote fears or nightmares. Sometimes children end up watching shows that may be too violent when they are watching television with an older sibling. Even television shows or cartoons that we as parents may think are innocent, could have some images that will frighten your child.

Bedtime rituals. To ensure a healthy sleep routine for your child, eliminate any television watching in the hours before bedtime. You can help create a comforting environment for sleep by reading books, playing soothing music, and using a nightlight for reassurance.

Usually, with all of the above measures and good parental support, the fear of the dark should decrease in most children. If not, make sure that a bigger problem is not being missed. Kids may have some anxiety if there is any major environmental stressors, such as the upcoming arrival of a new sibling, moving, divorce, or the death of a family member. If you can identify any possible stressors, talk to your pediatrician to see if your child may benefit from talking to a counselor.

What do you find works best in calming your child’s fears at bedtime?