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.