How to Help with Nighttime Fears
Put a Fear to Rest
Sometimes insight can put a fear to rest. At age three, Allison Cohen, of Davie, Florida, was terrified of clowns. That Halloween, Allison had a chance to watch a friend of her parents dress in his clown costume. “He left off the makeup,” says Allison’s mother, Brandy, “and she realized that clowns are just regular people.”
For a fear of monsters or other fantastical creatures, logic and demonstrations are impossible. Your best bet is to empower your child by helping him find a way to transform or banish the object of his fear. Invoke the same kind of magical thinking that inspired the fear, Dr. Nathan suggests. Your child might line up his stuffed animals by the window to guard against an intruder or keep “monster repellent” (a spray bottle filled with “magic” water) by his bed.
Having handy words to shout or a song to sing can also work. If your son is convinced that a big green monster is hiding in the closet, help him think of a simple phrase like “Go away, monster!” Then the two of you can check to make sure the coast is clear. Other children are helped by a comfort object. One four-year-old found a sense of protection by wearing his father’s T-shirts to bed. Remember that it’s best to let your child take the lead in creating her own fear-fighting plan. “Ultimately, the more capable a child feels,” Dr. Nelsen says, “the less likely she is to be afraid.”
One night, four-year-old Lauren Nathan, a niece of Dr. Nathan, refused to let her mother leave her room but wouldn’t reveal her fear. “I finally asked, ‘What will make you feel better?’” recalls Lauren’s mother, Cindy, of Menlo Park, California. “She replied, ‘A Band-Aid for my sheet.’ I got one for her from the medicine chest. We applied it to her sheet, and Lauren promptly fell asleep. It didn’t make any sense to me, but it made Lauren feel a lot better.”
Some fears seem to evaporate overnight, while others linger for months, even a year or two. Ultimately, what’s most important is not a particular fear but the process of helping kids learn that little by little they’re turning into good problem solvers and that they can defend themselves against scary thoughts.
“We want to teach that fear is a part of life and that kids can handle it,” Dr. Nelsen says. “Learning this will embolden even the most fearful child.”
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