For some kids, going to bed is a scary business. Psychologist Dr Melanie Woodfield sheds some light.
A child not sleeping due to fear of the dark, bad dreams or monsters perceived to be hiding under the bed poses a challenge for the whole family. While these complaints are common, they’re also acutely difficult to deal with when everyone is tired and a long sleepless night looms ahead. However, there are ways you can approach night fearsto help everyone get some sleep.
As a general rule, any chats about night-lights, sleep or bedtime should happen during the day. That way, all the negotiation happens when everyone is calm and relaxed. Anxiety is contagious. If you’re rattled or a bit nervous at night, kids pick up on this. Use a firm voice – not harsh, but not wobbly either.
Reassurance needs to involve validation. Blanket reassurance, for example “It’s okay, just stop worrying” is less effective than validation with reassurance, such as “I can see you’re really worried that there’s a monster under your bed. Remember though, that we checked under the bed with the torch. You’re safe. Now it’s sleep time.”
Scared of the dark
Parents are often cautious to use a night-light as they worry their child may become dependent, and won’t be able to sleep without that soft glow in the corner. However, there is nothing essentially wrong with using one.
Young children are often able to have a surprisingly rational discussion about what would be helpful for them at night. You could brainstorm together, or agree on timeframes (e.g. they can have their night-light until their next birthday or the end of the kindy holidays).
Dreams and nightmares are the stuff of much psychological research. Sigmund Freud attributed deep meaning to what goes on when we’re not fully conscious. Others noticed that increases in nightmares can be related to more basic processes, like eating curry! Nightmares are also more likely to happen at times of increased stress or transition (e.g. moving house, new kindy, parents separating).
Essentially though, nightmares are hard to control. What we can do is make the bedroom and the bedtime routine as safe and predictable as possible, to help kids regulate their emotions when they wake suddenly. Routines provide containment and security.
Also, powerful associations can quickly form between bed, darkness and unpleasant experiences like nightmares, which are unpredictable and often distressing. It can be helpful to try to associate bed and/or darkness with pleasant activities for a while, to lessen the power of the link between bedtime and fear. Maybe a friend sleeping over, or soft new sheets, or a special library book beside the bed in case bad dreams do wake your wee one up.
The difference between night terrors and nightmares
Night terrors and nightmares have things in common (they both involve fear or distress) but are quite different. Night terrors are common for children, and less common for adults. They usually happen in the early stages of sleep – within the first hour or so. Kids tend not to wake during night terrors – they’re often screaming or crying, but are not fully conscious. It’s tempting to try to wake them completely, but this often further disorients and distresses them. It’s best to keep the room dark and your voice low and calm. Give lots of reassurance (“It’s okay, I’m here. Time for sleep now”) and help him to lie back down. Chances are he’ll settle and go back to a deeper sleep state.
Interestingly, night terrors have been shown to happen more often when kids go to bed very tired. Yet another reason to establish a regular sleep routine with an age-appropriate bedtime.
Some kids are worriers. An anxious temperament tends to run in families – you may also have a tendency to stress which can in turn help you to empathise with your child’s fears. Just make sure you fake confidence, even if you share his worries. Your confidence will be contagious, and help contain his anxiety.
Consider the fear equation. Fear equals an over-estimation of the danger that the situation involves combined with an under-estimation of our ability to cope. This equation helps us to understand what’s driving the fear, and how to address it. Fundamentally, we need to either boost kids’ confidence in their ability to cope, or dial down their sense of how dangerous night-time actually is.
Research suggests the most important thing we parents can do is to not be an overprotective helicopter. Without meaning to, we can give kids messages that yes, night-time is very dangerous and that they can’t control their world and need our help. Instead, we need to slowly but surely stretch kids to face things they’re afraid of.
Ask your child to “talk back” to the fears. Positive self-talk can really help. So if the fear monster is saying “What if I have a nightmare?”, you could support your child to talk back to their fears by saying something like “Yes, that might happen. But, it hardly ever does, and if it does, I can just call for Mum, or read my favourite book. I’m scared, but it will be okay”. Practice this talking back technique during daytime, so he’s ready to use it at night.
Ask your child what advice he’d give to a friend in this situation. Chances are he’ll come up with something helpful as it’s often easier to help others than ourselves.
Distraction is a really helpful tool. Teach distraction techniques during the day, and practice a few times so that they’re second nature when anxiety strikes.
For example, ask your child if they can think of a food or animal that starts with each letter of their name. Or, using all their senses, ask them to name five things they can see, five things they can hear and five things they can feel touching their body (hair, pyjama top, sock, etc.) The point of this exercise is not to get the answers right. The point is that your child is focussed fully on the task and therefore distracted from their fears.
Relaxation techniques are very helpful in the fight against fear and breathing is a great place to start. When we’re anxious, our breathing gets fast and shallow. We want it to be slow and deep, so encourage your child to imagine his tummy is a balloon. When he breathes in slowly through his nose, it’s blowing up his tummy balloon. When he breathes out through his mouth, the balloon goes down.
Relaxation techniques help to change your child’s physiology – their breathing slows and their heart rate slows. When he finishes this breathing exercise he’ll find it easier to get to sleep.
You may wonder if playing along with your child’s belief in monsters will make it difficult for him to distinguish between fantasy and reality. I say, “Play along”.
Get him to do what we psychologists call a “behavioural experiment” to help test the accuracy of the ideas that are underpinning his fears. Your child could be a scientist testing the idea that monsters are under the bed. Props like a clipboard or white coat might help him play the part. He might record his findings on a chart, and once he’s collected lots of evidence you can ask him again how much he believes in monsters. Chances are he’ll be wavering a bit. Thoughts and feelings are so closely related, if he has less confidence in the idea that there’s a monster, he’ll be less anxious.
Fears at night-time are very common. While some children will only worry for a short time, others will need more active support to face their fears. But don’t panic, there is a lot of information based on solid research to help you on your way to calm and peaceful sleep for the whole family.
For more information:
Macquarie University’s Centre for Emotional Health has free fact sheets and excellent handbooks available to buy such as Helping Your Anxious Child. Visit centreforemotionalhealth.com.au.
Dr Melanie Woodfield is a child and adolescent clinical psychologist, and mum to two young boys. When she hears a noise in the night she gasps in concern, not that a monster is under the bed, but that a child has bumped their head.