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Dealing with "monsters" and nighttime fears

It can be difficult to think straight when your crying child shakes you awake in the middle of the night frightened and tearful by a nightmare or the monster she knows for sure has taken up residence in her closet or under her bed.

Or a terrible dream that leaves her feeling shaken. Groggily, I would find myself talking half-asleep to my 4-year-old daughter, “Honey, I know that the monster moved out last week. He doesn’t even like it here. He’s completely afraid of you.” But, to no avail.

Up we went to scope out the situation and reassuringly find her room clean of all mysterious creatures. As I went to tuck Kyle in, she looked up with me with sudden realization and declared, “Mommy. I just realized that the monster only comes out in the dark.” Apparently her night-light and door opened a crack to the hallway light simply didn’t count when it came to monster chasing.

Up went the dream-catcher (doing double duty now as a monster catcher as well) that my friend Judy had given me, and out came the “monster spray.”

Change-up bedtime rituals

  • Read stories, or make up your own stories, about children bravely, or humorously, conquering the fear of the dark, shadows, monsters whatever fear your child faces.
  • Tuck your child’s sheets around her snugly.
  • Give her something warm to drink to calm and soothe her before bed.
  • Draw pictures of things your child loves, or cut them from magazines, to fill a box. Have her select a picture from the box to think about while falling asleep.
  • Provide soft lighting in her room. Move or remove a light that your child thinks throws frightening shadows on the walls.
  • Fill a spray bottle with water and label it “monster spray” and have your child spritz the room before bed.
  • Shake a little talc mixed with sparkles or just an empty bottle with the words “magic dust” around the room.
  • Help her make a sign for the door, such as “No monsters allowed!”
  • Buy new pajamas or a pillowcase and declare them monster-proof.
  • Make a thorough search of the room part of your bedtime ritual.
  • Make a ritual of shouting, sweeping, or throwing out any lurking monsters before bed. Close doors to scary closets. Go on a monster hunt to reassure your child that the coast is clear.
  • Tell your child that the monsters are more scared of her, and she has the power to frighten them away.
  • Give your child a flashlight to keep next to her bed, or next to her pillow, to use if she wakes up afraid in the middle of the night.
  • Hang a dream catcher in a corner of her room, and explain how it will help catch any nightmares.
  • On a warm night, lie out on a blanket under the stars to make warm, comforting associations with nighttime and the dark.

    Middle of the night wake-ups

  • If your child wakes from a nightmare, talk a little about it with her. Sharing will help her feel reassured.
  • Rewrite a happy ending for her, where she vanquishes whatever scary thing she faced in the dream.
  • Let her know that dreams are magical things over which she the dreamer has control.
  • If your child is spooked by night sounds, keep a tape player by her bed with a soothing tape she enjoys to lull her to sleep. If she wakes in the night, she can play it for herself.
  • Make your child protector of her stuffed animals. Have her comfort a favorite one who might be a little scared as well, and reassure her that her stuffed animals will watch over her.

    During the day

  • If your child becomes afraid of shadows in her room at night, use daytime to teach her about shadows, make shadow puppets, and play tag with her own shadow.
  • If your child is afraid of thunderstorms, make a game out of thunder and lightening, counting as high as you can between the bolt and the clap, and seeing if you can clap or roar louder than the thunder.
  • Ask your child to draw you a picture of what frightens her, so you can talk about it and make it seem less powerful.
  • Don’t trivialize your child’s fears. Acknowledge them and explain some of your own childhood fears and how you got past them. Confiding your own fears as a child will normalize your child’s fears and help her feel more in control of her emotions and hopeful about conquering her fears.
  • Eliminate violent or frightening books, movies, and cartoons.
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