Spooky season is upon us, and with it comes scary movies, creepy decorations, and a lot of frightful fun. We love celebrating the Halloween season, but this time of the year can also create a lot of fuel for nightmares. So how can you make sure your whole family sleeps peacefully this Halloween season? Today, I want to offer a few tried and tested tips that I have used with my Chasing Dreams families to help their munchkins conquer their fear of the dark.
At what age do children become afraid of the dark?
Fear of the dark usually pops up around age 2-3, when your toddler’s memory and capacity for imagination are developing. Your child may experience nightmares until they are school-age, but they will be less likely as your child gets older. But giving them the skills to overcome their fears can help them feel safe, even when nightmares pop up.
What causes fear of the dark?
When your child becomes a toddler, they begin to become more aware of the world and realize that there are things that can hurt them. As their imagination grows, they have trouble separating reality from imagination. Fears can be triggered by stress, whether because they are going to bed overtired, because they are learning a new skill, or because there has been a change in their environment. Fears can also be triggered by what your child watches, sees during the day, reads in a book, you name it. In a toddler’s imagination, anything can become spooky when they are alone in the dark.
How can I help my child overcome their fear of the dark?
1. Encourage Them to Stay in Bed
Your child should stay in bed and find out for himself that he really is safe so that he can learn to overcome his fears. If your child is too frightened to stay in his room alone, it is okay to occasionally stay with him until he falls asleep. If you end up doing this frequently or for more than two nights in a row, he may come to depend on your presence to go to sleep, and you may have to redo your sleep plan all over again.
If he is sleeping in a big kid bed, and he gets up in the middle of the night and comes into your room to tell you about a nightmare, it is best to take him back to his bed. Check on him. If your child is anxious about you leaving, check on him frequently. It is better to check on him on a predictable schedule, every 5 or 10 minutes, so that you’re coming and reassuring him is not based on him crying or calling out for you. Again, nightmares should be a very infrequent occurrence and anything occurring more frequently is usually because of an inability to connect sleep cycles, usually a result of inconsistencies around sleep and getting attention at night for being afraid.
2. Listen and Validate
We want to listen when our children develop a fear or hesitancy of their own. Stay calm, and acknowledge that you hear them. You can ask them to tell you more about their dream or what might scare them about the dark, etc. but try not to react in a way that will belittle them or in a way that will play in to the fear (“Let’s go right now and look under your bed for monsters”). Or worse, “If you’re a good boy, the goblins won’t get you.” It’s never too early to tell children that while fears are valid, we don’t want to let them control our lives. Let them know that goblins and witches aren’t real, they’re only costumes, etc., but validate the emotions they are feeling.
3. Play in Your Child’s Bedroom
Play in your child’s bedroom with them. Lots of parents keep most toys out of the room, so the room isn’t seen as a fun happy place by the child. Make sure they play in there. Even if the toys leave after they finish.
4. Age-Appropriate Screen Time
What children see can have a huge impact on young children. Make sure to check ratings and suggestions before allowing your child to watch shows or play games. Startling, violent, or “bad guy” imagery – even if it seems mild to us – can be disturbing for youngsters and will stick with them for far longer than you want it to.
5. Games in the Dark
Make being in the dark fun. Play flashlight tag. Use flashlights to make shadows on a wall. Talk about how shadows are not bad; they are simply part of the room. In the daytime, sit in the dark room with your child and look for shadows. Look at them and talk about how they are simply a part of the room and how they are made. Help your child understand that it isn’t necessary to make shadows go away (in fact we can’t) but he can know what they are and that they are harmless. Have a treasure hunt and search for things that glow in the dark. Use your imagination and be creative. Use your imagination to fight imaginary fears, like monsters. You can also get several glow-in-the-dark toys or bracelets to explore in the dark. Shadow books (like “Whoo’s There? A Bedtime Shadow Book”) are also fun!
Noises are always mundane and heard by adults. Your kid can NEVER hear something you didn’t. Pets, squirrels, birds, cars/trucks, pipes, furnace, water heater… NAME the sound and swear that’s what it was until your dying day. Never waiver. Go visit the sounds. Visit the furnace, water heater and visible pipes in your house. Kids don’t know what they are, teach them. Run the water or turn up the heat to get them to make some noises and talk about how they help the house. Noises aren’t scary when they have a name and a purpose.
7. Daytime Imaginary Role Play
Have your child be actively involved and in control of coming up with solutions to help him gain a sense of mastery and control. As a daytime activity, lie on the floor with pillows and blankets, and ask him who he thinks is brave and strong. Whatever he says, go with it. If he says, his pet chicken is brave, ask, “What would your chicken do if there were monsters.” (Be careful with your language, so that you aren’t agreeing with him that there are monsters, but saying, well, suppose there are monsters, what would your brave hero do?) And whatever he says, go with it. If he says chicken would use a sword and destroy them, repeat that back to him. Don’t correct him if you don’t like his idea. Ask him to imagine what he is doing to something he is afraid of.
(Later on, if you like, you can tell him that what he imagines is reserved only for the monsters and not anything else).
8. Security Object
Most children are comforted by having a stuffed animal or comfort item nearby for nighttime company. Help your child become attached to a security object that he can keep in bed with him. This can help your child feel more relaxed at bedtime and throughout the night. His “stuffed bear” is “brave” and it stays with him throughout the night. Avoid scary television shows. Keep your child away from scary TV shows, videos or stories that may add to his fears.
9. Relaxation Techniques
Teach your child relaxation strategies to help him relax at bedtime and fall asleep. For example, have your child imagine a relaxing scene, such as lying on the beach or watching a sunset. This will give him something else to think about while lying in bed and help distract him from fearful thoughts. Also, it is physically impossible to be relaxed and scared at the same time. Discuss your child’s fears during the day. Talk to your child about his fears during the day and how he can be less frightened at night. Additionally, build your child’s self-confidence during the day. If he feels secure during the day, this can help him feel more secure at night, too.
These tips are just a few ways you can ease your child’s fear of the dark. Most children grow out of their fear of the dark, especially with a parent’s help, and start sleeping again in no time. But if you’ve tried every trick in the book and your family still isn’t sleeping, it may be time to call in the experts. Schedule a FREE Sleep Evaluation with me to learn more about Sleep Training and how my proven methods help families like your solve their sleep struggles for once and for all.