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9 Ways to Take Charge of Bedtime Fears

03/04/2015 03:42 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2015
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"Don't leave! I'm too scared! Just five more minutes! Pleaseeeee!" All children go through a time of having difficulty going to bed. Whether it's because they are afraid of the dark, the monsters under the bed, their dolls coming to life, "bad guys" or of going to the bathroom (because someone at school is starting up the "Bloody Mary in the mirror" stories again), kids' imaginations get going and keep them up at night... and you, too. But, that's the key. It's not their bed, or the house or the dolls; it's what on their minds that makes them so frightened. So, while you're tempted to just reassure your child that everything's fine, chances are you already know that doesn't work.

What does work?

Teaching your child that he or she can be the boss and not get tricked by the "worry" part of their brain! By teaching your child the tricks that worry can play, like how it loves to exaggerate (making up extra scary stories for situations that are actually extra safe, like turning piles of laundry on the dresser into monsters, or household creaking sounds into intruders) and ignore the facts, you can encourage your child to take charge and enlist their imagination to be more honest with them! How do they do that? By calling in their smart brain to test their fears instead of trusting them.

So, whether your child is 7 or 17, the techniques below will help your child to take charge of his fears.

1. Empathize first
Even if your child's fears seem unreasonable to you, you can help them feel more safe -- emotionally safe -- by not challenging the fact that they are afraid. If you ask "Why are you scared?" or say "You don't need to worry," it puts them in a position where they need to defend their fears -- that is not what any one wants. Say instead: "I know you're feeling scared right now," or, " I know that worry is really bothering you right now," or even, "I know what it's like to feel afraid and it's not how you want it to be, I'm going to help you."

2. Separate your child from the worry
When your child says he or she is scared, rather than rushing to reassure them, help your child see worry as a choice, a choice she doesn't have to make. Say: "OK, let's hear from worry, what is it telling you? And then we'll hear from you about what you really think."

3. What's the real fear? Tell on worry, and narrow it down
Have your child name what they are afraid of. Some children may not know, but many children will say monsters, or robbers or whatever it may be. Don't guess for them; you'll be inadvertently planting new ideas. Say, "Worry is really bothering you -- tell me what it's saying? Or, "Tell me what worry is making you think about?" Or, "what's the one thing that worry is bothering you about the most?"

4. Have your child "fact check" worry
Once your child has listed the fears and worries either on paper or aloud, have them put each worry to the test. Ask your child: "This is what worry is saying to you -- how true do you think that is? What do you really think is going to happen? Do you believe it? Why or why not? If worry were taking a test at school, would the teacher mark that answer right or wrong? What does your smart brain say about the dolls coming out of the closet?" This way, the child begins to get the idea that worry says things, but she can think and listen to other parts instead. Even a young child can do this via finger puppets representing worry brain and smart brain, older children can just say the fears and facts or write them down side-by-side. Seeing the facts vs. the fears, your child will use her smart brain to outsmart her worry. Keep the facts by the bedside for quick reference.

5. Fight scary with silly -- do a "Monster Makeover"
If your child is afraid of monsters jumping out in the dark, or replaying a scary scene from a movie they saw, after they have done the "fact-checking" above, they can fight scary with silly by doing a "Monster Makeover." Have your child draw their "monster" (or describe it to you). Then invite them to use their imagination to create a silly version: add roller skates, a polka dot bikini, a tutu, juggling balls, birthday hats, exaggerated muscles, banana peels to slip on, etc. Repeat as needed!

6. Practice on purpose (and make it fun)
Do a "camping trip" in your child's room with flashlights to do a fun activity in the dark. Hide glow-in-the-dark items from the dollar store that your child can find. Let your child be a "tour guide" and have them walk down a darkish hall (using a flashlight is fine) and give you a tour of where the light switches or lamps are and show you how to turn operate them. The "title" of tour guide will help your child feel more confident about being in the semi-dark -- and they'll learn the important skill/information about where the light switches are!

7. Ease up on the lights, gradually
Many children with nighttime fears in general, or a fear of the dark in particular, end up convincing their parents to sleep with the room ablaze with the overhead light, the hall light and the bathroom light on. This isn't good for sleeping, but it also doesn't give the child the opportunity to see how their eyes will adjust to darkness within a few minutes. Work towards using lower wattage light bulbs, and then transition to night lights (better to have at baseboard, not eye level), eventually using just one.

8. Designate a worry time
If the floodgates of your child's worry are opening up every night as soon as you get ready to turn out the lights leading to late nights and frustration, change the schedule. Choose an earlier time (after school, after dinner) for five minutes where your child will list his fears and "fact check" so your child will be all ready to boss back his worry when it's time for bed.

9. Use the "Four Doors Exercise" to end on a good note
After your child has set the worries straight, it's helpful to have somewhere else they can choose to put their attention. Ask your child to think of four things they'd actually like to think about at bedtime: birthday parties, trips they'd like to take, Legos projects they'd like to build, how they'd decorate cupcakes, their dream day with a celebrity, funny things their dog does -- anything goes. Have them draw four doors on a sheet of paper and fill in each door with an idea. Switch ideas as often as needed. Send them off to sleep by asking them what doors they want to go through tonight and they can tell you all about their adventures at breakfast.

Remember that it takes a few weeks to get new routines in place, so if your child has been running out of the room, or sneaking into your bed for a few months, it will take patience and persistence on your part to set a new pattern and expectations for bedtime. Remember too that helping your child with this important step toward independence isn't mean parenting (though your child may think so, or accuse you of that in hopes that you'll quit your mission to help and just stay with them) -- this is compassionate parenting. You're helping them to do something that eventually they'll need and want to do on their own -- whether it's the sleepover they don't want to miss out on, a class overnight trip or just being able to go to bed without it being a major melt down, rest easy, take it at your child's pace, but know that you are teaching them a skill that will serve them well throughout their life. Wishing you good nights and sweet dreams for all!

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©Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., 2015. No portion of this work may be reproduced without permission of the author. A version of this was previously published on Psychology Today.