How to Calm Your Child’s Nighttime Fears
As a parent of three, I’ve been there – finally stretching out for a moment to relax, assuming my little angels are snuggled in the midst of sweet dreams, when a youngster’s terrified scream causes me to jump.
Childhood fears are a standard part of growing up. While some fears emerge intrinsically, others develop over time or can result from specific experiences. Knowing what to expect at each childhood stage, and having tools to react to a child’s fears, can ease a parent’s mind.
Infants and Toddlers
Infants and toddlers frequently fear loud noises, strangers, changes at home, separation and large looming objects. The comforting key for parents of children at this stage is providing security. Holding the child securely, maintaining eye contact and speaking or singing in a gentle, cheerful voice, can diminish panic and provide peace. Also, infants and toddlers thrive when following an established and predictable routine. ?
Thanks to preschoolers’ creative and flourishing imaginations, fears of the dark, monsters, ghosts, dogs and other animals abound. Keys to comfort include providing an assuring and compassionate presence, and approaching the fear with respect.
Take time to discuss a child’s feelings and create a customized plan for handling the situation. For example, if things go bump in the night, explain where shadows come from, and have fun exploring shadows with a flashlight; or plug in a nightlight and allow the child to decide when to remove it. Be cautious about TV and stories before bed when children are experiencing nighttime fears. With preschoolers’ vivid imaginations, even a fluffy dog can transform into a rabid one. ?
Once children enter the school-age stage, fears solidify and the subject matters are more concrete. Common fears include snakes, spiders, getting shots at the doctor’s office, illness, being home alone, failure or rejection. Disturbing movies, TV shows and news reports also can escalate real fear. Always approach fear with respect, understanding and acceptance. Never dismiss a child’s fear. Instead, be calm and confident, and be careful to not reinforce or create fears. Sadly, I’ve overheard adults say, “Don’t do that or the Boogie Man will come and get you!” or “If you misbehave, I’ll call the police.” Both comments steer children toward fear in hopes of achieving a desired behavior and should be avoided.
As a child takes baby steps toward overcoming fears, recognize and praise his bravery. Courage means facing a fear and proceeding forward. Embrace this stage by snuggling up and sharing personal stories of overcoming personal fears and challenges. You can learn together about courageous historical figures or brave relatives within your family history.
Not all fears have a root cause, but abruptly emerging fears often stem from life stressors such as death of a pet, a sibling’s birth, moving or divorce. Physicians can aid in identifying fear origins and can suggest specific coping strategies and appropriate local resources, especially when fears begin to hamper day-to-day activities.
Ariam Alexanian is family physician for Lakeside Family Physicians in Charlotte.