Afraid of the Dark and Clingy Behavior

My 6-year old has a new fear of the dark and wants me to lie in bed with her. How can I stop this before it becomes a habit?

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): The first thing this mom should remember is to keep the soothing in the daughter’s bed and not bring her daughter into the mom’s bed. Allowing kids to crawl into mom and dad’s bed as a solution to nighttime fears is not a good pattern to get into as it can lead to more bedtime resistance.

One of the things she can do with a six-year old is to simply ask her what it is that she is afraid of. Six-year olds are generally pretty verbal and they can say, “You know, I saw this television show and it really scared me, and I’m afraid that something’s hiding under my bed. “ This is really common at that age.

She’ll want to ask her daughter what she can do to help her feel safer in her bed. She could ask her daughter if it would it be helpful to see her mom looking in the closet or under the bed at bedtime? What about if she could hold on to a special blanket or stuffed animal to feel protected? One idea I’ve heard is for the parent to use a broom to physically “sweep” out any monsters from underneath the bed. Another might be to put scary-looking or ugly action figures or drawings underneath the bed to make monsters feel unwelcome. For a 6-year old, she could draw a “Keep Out – No Monsters Allowed” sign and place it on her door or underneath her bed, or wherever she wants it.

Of course, this mom can stay with her daughter a little bit longer when she reads to her at night during this phase. Perhaps a small night light could be comforting to the child. I don’t  see anything wrong with a nightlight as long as it is not too bright. A bright light could effect her sleeping, but a small light can often be quite comforting to a child who has become afraid of the dark.

MOLLY: What about her daughter’s newly clingy behavior?

MOM: Well, she could start by giving her daughter a hug when seem seems very needy. As a parent, when you see a new behavior pattern in a child, you need to try to figure out –either with the child or on your own– what exactly is going on with that child.

If the child seems newly clingy now and has a younger sibling, that’s a cue that the older child needs some one-on-one time with that parent. The mom could consider getting a sitter for the younger child so that she could do something special with the older child. Maybe they could go to the park or pick out a book at the library… anything where she gets a little special one-on-one time with her mom.

We’ve talked about what moms can do to minimize sibling rivalry, and I think a newfound clinginess in an elder sibling can be a sign of this jealousy rearing its head.

MOLLY: What about drawing the line with a 6-year old and saying, “I’m not going to lie in bed with you anymore at night.” Do you think that could be helpful or damaging to a child?

MOM: It might have to come to that. But, rather than make an abrupt change, she could try reducing the amount of time she spends lying with her after storytime, etc. If she currently lies down with her daughter for 10 minutes, she could reduce it by a minute each night, all the while telling her daughter what she is doing. This is what we use transitional objects for – the blanket or the special stuffed animal or something that the child can get comfort from as a way of weaning off of the parent’s physical presence at bedtime.

MOLLY: Maybe this mom and her daughter could go out together and buy a stuffed animal for this purpose?

MOM: Yes, that would be a good idea.

MOLLY: What might happen if this problem isn’t addressed now?

MOM: The problem with not addressing this kind of behavior now is that the child may not learn how to effectively self-soothe and fall asleep on her own. As the child grows older and into adulthood, she might need something else around to help her fall asleep… maybe a  person or maybe a pill or a drink. Over the years people lose sight of the original source of their sleeping issue and it develops a life of its own.

Experience this? Comment below if you’ve had success helping your child learn to soothe themselves. Or Contact US if you have other parenting questions you’d like to see addressed.

ding One comment on “Afraid of the Dark and Clingy Behavior

  1. I just had an experience that ties right into this advice! My 2 year old son is now in the middle of monster fears in his room. In the middle of the night he’s crying and says he’s “scared.” I went into his room; at first I was going to tell him not to worry – there are no monsters. But then I remembered how my Mom (Dr. Rutherford) talked about “cleaning the room out of monsters” and saying “not to worry,” isn’t going to help. I vigorously told the monsters they weren’t allowed in the room with my son who just as vigorously agreed with me. Then he was off to sleep!

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