My Child Is Scared to Go to Sleep. How Can I Help?

My kid is 4 years old and keeps waking up scared that there are monsters under the bed. What can I do?

MOM: Now one of the things that I see sometimes is that there’s a tendency to miss the concern of the kid.  “Oh, there are no monsters in there, don’t be silly…”, “Grow up, there’s nothing to be afraid of….”, that kind of thing. Which will shut the kid down but will not make them feel any less scared. Young children have a hard time separating reality and fantasy. They don’t know the difference. So they imagine creatures; this is a very common developmental stage and for them it’s very scary and very real.

You can devise a technique with a kid to help them get over this. Remember, you did this with your daughter? She was afraid of that character from the tv show Dora The Explorer, “Swiper”. We talked about taking the fear seriously, and that if she needs you to speak to Swiper on her behalf, then you do so. As a parent, you told Swiper to stay out of her room and worked very well, if I remember correctly. It was a whole routine you had with her that was very comforting to her. A parent may have to do that routine of banishing the monsters night after night before bedtime when kids are deep into this anxiety-about-monsters-under-the-bed phase. It’s a very common fear, a very common stage, most kids go through it. It depends on how the parent handles it as to how the kid gets through it. If the parent is with the child on it and says things like, “I understand, this is scary, let’s look in the closet, let’s look under the bed, let’s tell Swiper not to come in your room at night….” then the child will feel much better because they’ll feel understood by the parent and they will be able to release the anxiety and sleep.

MOLLY: What happens if the parent says, “There are no monsters, there’s no such thing as monsters…don’t worry go to bed…”?

MOM: The phase will go on longer and the child will be scared which could develop into a long-term sleeping problem. You could end up with a kid who can’t fall asleep at night and nobody knows why because they’ve forgotten about this monster thing and the kid no longer talks about it. So it’s lost to both the child and the parent about what the root issue is. The sleeping problem takes on a life of its own.

MOLLY: Can they dig that up in therapy when they are adults?

MOM:  Probably not. It’s so far gone. That’s the thing, when things become unconscious, they are “forgotten about,” but not really, and the seed stays there in the unconscious mind.

ding 7 comments on “My Child Is Scared to Go to Sleep. How Can I Help?

  1. I may have missed the boat on that one. I may have told my son that there are no monsters and to think happy thoughts. He is now 9 and insists on sleeping with the lights on. Any suggestions on recovery? By the way, I love your blog! What a great thing for all!

    Stacy

    • Stacy,
      Great question! Here’s my MOM’s response:
      You could try this: when he’s getting ready for bed one night, you could say, “Hey, I remember when you were little you were scare of monsters when it was time to go to bed at night. Do you remember? (He may or may not, but continue anyway). Well, I should have checked under the bed and in the closet with you, so you would be sure everything was safe. Let’s do it now just to make sure.” Engage him in doing this, call the “all clear” and put him to bed with a hug and an “I love you.” You could say that you were sorry you didn’t do this when he was little, too, that all kids are scared sometimes at night. Try doing this for at least a week, and see how he reacts. You can then check with him from time to time about the light at night. Keep it on for him until he’s ready to sleep without it. It may take some time because it’s been going on for a while, but be patient. Let us know how it works!
      Susan Rutherford, Psy.D.

  2. I am a great believer in asking the kid, what will help. My youngest son asked for my “bug spray.” I thought he meant off, but what he wanted was his room sprayed with my perfume. Made him think I was there with him. Made me feel great.

    • Thanks for your comment Katherine! Here’s my MOM’s response:
      I so agree with you – asking a child what will help is frequently revealing and so interesting. You were right to interpret his request as a need for your presence without you actually being there. Nice work!

  3. I remember when I was really little, I was terrified of spiders. If I even saw a spider at some point throughout the day, I would stay up the entire night obsessing about it. So after countless nights, my mom devised a plan for a “spider repellent”- vinegar and water. I sprayed it all over my room, sheets, and pillows every single night. It cured my spider fear. It wasn’t until I was about 12 years old- still spraying my room, that my mom finally confessed about making it up. I felt like kindp of an idiot, but at the same time, it was pretty ingenious. I’m 26 now with a daughter of my own, and I know a great recipe for a spider repellent, should I ever need it! Lol

    • Dear Stephanie,
      That was great thinking! The very same purpose as checking under the beds. Your recipe may work for lots of fears of the dark.
      Susan Rutherford, Psy.D.

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