What should I do if my child says they are too scared to go to sleep?
Posted by: Sue Atkins
All kids suffer from nightmares at some point or another so here are some simple tips to help.
- Simply listen & try to understand your child’s fears. Don’t dismiss or make fun of them. Just hold the space for them to tell you what they dreamt about.
- Reassure. It is important to reassure your child if they are afraid. Communicate the idea that they are safe, loved and protected.
- Teach your child coping skills and discuss alternative ways to respond to their fears and help them to start focusing on something else. You could talk about how you deal with something that you are afraid of.
- Buy books with stories about children who are afraid of the dark, have nightmares or conquer their fears to help your child see that they are not alone and that there are ways to handle fears and nightmares.
- The fun, quirky characters often come up with creative ways to deal with their fears, and that will inspire your own kids to come up with their own ways of handling their fears as well as showing them they’re not the only ones having nightmares.
- In ‘Sweet Dreams For Sydne’ by Jean Wiley, Sydney the squirrel wears a pair of goggles to get rid of her nightmare, a trick she’s taught by her father. It teaches your kids the power of positive thinking.
- Young readers will feel confident that they can tackle their nightmares when they dive into Philip Waechter’s ‘Rosie and the Nightmares.’ Brave and clever, Rosie is a character they’ll love right away, and they’ll feel inspired by her brave solution.
- Quirky and beautifully illustrated, Lindan Lee Johnson’s ‘The Dream Jar’ tells the story of a little girl who learns to turn bad dreams into good ones. She teaches her sister the trick and the two transform nightmares into “dreamy dreams” together.
- As part of the classic series, ‘The Berenstain Bears and the Bad Dream’ tells the story of Sister and Brother Bear as they suffer from nightmares. Mama and Papa’s explanation of where bad dreams come from will help to comfort your own kids, too.
- Have fun in the dark. Make being in the dark fun. Play with torches and have a treasure hunt and have fun searching for things that glow in the dark. Talk about lovely nocturnal animals and people who work at night.
- Use your imagination and be creative. Use your imagination to fight imaginary fears, like monsters. Many families I have worked with have found “monster spray” to be a wonderful way to help a child cope with bedtime fears. Make up some water with some food dye in it so the children feel they have some magic ‘monster spray’ to hand!
Some children are comforted by having a pet nearby for night time company (even a pet fish by the bed may help!) Whenever possible, get your child be actively involved in finding their own solutions to help them gain a sense of mastery and control for themselves.
- Security object. Some children benefit from becoming attached to a security object that they can keep in bed with them. This can help your child feel more relaxed at bedtime and throughout the night. It can be a toy, truck, teddy or blanket whatever your child enjoys cuddling. They will eventually grow out of it.
- Nightlight. No matter what your child may be afraid of, a night-light can help. Nightlights are fine as long as they aren’t too bright so that they don’t prevent your child from falling asleep. Another thing to try is to leave the bedroom door slightly open so that your child doesn’t feel isolated from the rest of the family.
- Dream catchers are a simple and fun way to help your child. They help to catch the ‘bad dreams,’ and carry away their fears.
- Get your child to draw pictures of their nightmare that they crumple up, jump up and down on and then throw away.
- Avoid scary television shows especially just before bedtime. Keep your child away from scary TV, videos, computer games, news or stories that may add or feed their fears.
- Relaxation training. Teach your child relaxation strategies to help them to relax at bedtime and fall asleep. For example, help your child imagine a relaxing scene, such as lying on the beach or watching a sunset, or strolling through a beautiful garden. This will give them something else to think about while they are lying in bed and will help to distract them from their fearful thoughts. Also, it is physically impossible to be relaxed and scared at the same time J There are lots of super stories on www.relaxkids.co.uk that use guided meditational stories to relax kids.
- Discuss your child’s fears during the day. Talk to your child about their fears during the day and how they can be less frightened at night. Additionally, build up and empower your child’s self-confidence during the day. Point out when they are brave, strong, independent or confident. If they feel secure during the day, this can help them feel more secure at night, too.
- Set limits. At the same time that you are reassuring your child, you do need to set limits. Setting limits is necessary to prevent your child’s “being scared” behaviour from being reinforced and becoming a great way to get your undivided attention. Become more matter of fact and remind your child “Remember, no crying and no calling out at bedtime. Hug your teddy. Love you, sleep well. Night”
- Encourage your child to stay in their bed. Don’t encourage your child to get out of bed. They should stay in their bed and find out for themselves that they really are safe so that they can learn to overcome their own fears (within reason.) It’s a good idea for you to stay with them in their own room than it is for them to join you in your bed! If your child is too frightened to stay in their room alone, it is okay to occasionally stay with them until they fall asleep, but don’t do this too frequently, as you set up a new habit that’s hard to break. Children quickly depend on your presence. If your child gets up in the middle of the night and comes into your room, it is better to take them right back and gently tuck them into bed with a kiss and a matter of fact attitude.
- Check on them – and keep your word! If your child is anxious about you leaving the room, check on them frequently. It is better to check on them on a predictable schedule, every 5 or 10 minutes, so that your coming and reassuring them is not based on them crying or calling out for you. They learn to trust that you keep your word, do as you say and that they can rely on you. Say ‘I’m just popping on the kettle, stirring the potatoes, checking on the dinner….. and I’ll be back in a minute…’
- Reward system. Some children get reinforced for being scared at night by getting lots of attention for being afraid. If this is the case, change the scenario! Tell your child how proud you are of them for being brave. Set up a reward system so they can earn stickers for being brave and sleeping on their own. After earning a certain number of stickers, they can trade them in for a treat, or an ‘ING’ activity – cooking, riding their bike, playing with Lego, gardening with Grandad or reading a favourite story. Use my ‘Easy Button Technique’ where you get an Easy Button from Staples and when your child stays in their bed, turns over and self-soothes themselves by cuddling their comforter, or helping themselves to a drink by the bed, they can press their ‘Easy Button either in reality or in their imagination, or even by pressing their tummy button as a fun way to reward themselves J
What causes my child to feel scared of going to sleep?
Night time fears and nightmares are extremely common in children, especially during the preschool years, but they can definitely occur in older children and teenagers as well. This is all part of your child’s normal development, as they begin to understand that there are things that exist that can hurt them.
There are times that fears and nightmares are the result of a frightening experience, from being scared by a large dog in the park to watching the news, but other times they seem to come out of the blue. Family conflict and parental anxiety can also play a role. As well as any changes your child might have gone through from a change in their childminder, to a divorce or bereavement. Anything that makes your child more emotional is going to make their fears worse and make them feel more anxious or vulnerable.
Children also typically have different fears at different developmental stages. Young children are often afraid of monsters and other imaginary creatures, whereas older children are more likely to fear being hurt by more realistic dangers, such as burglars or a natural disaster.
Some children learn very quickly, that saying they are afraid is an effective stalling tactic or a way to avoid bedtime. On the other hand, some children and teenagers with sleep issues really have an anxiety disorder; these are generally children who also worry a lot during the day or have things that they are anxious about or avoid.
How should I respond to my child’s nightmare?
Your child is going to need reassurance after having a nightmare. This is especially the case with younger children. As your child gets older, though, you will want to start teaching them coping skills that they can use when they are anxious or scared. Of course, you may not always be there when your child has a bad dream, such as at a sleepover or at overnight camp. No matter how old your child is though, reassurance is going to go a long way to helping them to feel safe, secure, loved and nurtured.