PARENTING
01/12/2016 02:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Ghosts, Burglars, and Kidnappers at Night - How Do Parents Relieve Kids' Fears?

Grade School Kids' Fears

The grade school kids' set often have fears of ghosts under the bed and in the closet along with worries about burglars, kidnappers, and even killers. This 6-10 age group is well-known for having vivid imaginations that often go to work at night when the children are tired and alone in bed. What are dads and moms to do?

How Much Reassurance Should You Give?

When your eight-year-old daughter wants you to check the closet to make sure no one is in there for the second time before her kiss good-night, do you tell her you just checked and only a minute has passed, kiss her good-night and close her door? Or, do you check again and tell her there is nothing to fear?

Four Tips to Ease Nighttime Fears

1. Be the reality checker for your child. When you check the second time (sure, do it, why not?) tell her that her worries are from her imagination. Remind her they are pretend, not real.

2. Be mindful of your child's stage of development. Kids under five may not have entirely worked out the distinction between real and pretend especially when they are tired. Kids six and up know the distinction, but what's imagined still can override their common sense.

3. Remember kids are egocentric. They believe what they think is true. They also believe that what they think, others think, too. So when you look in the closet, tell your child that you are sure there is nothing to fear, but you will check anyway just to prove it. This way you are saying that what is in her mind is not in your mind.

4. Stay calm. Worried kids need calm parents. When dads and moms are exhausted from a busy stay-at-home or work day, they want the kids asleep, so they can get some down-time. Basically, a scared kid does not understand that. Giving that last reassurance will actually let you leave the room faster if you don't betray your frustration.

Six Reasons Fears Rise Up at Night

1. At night kids believe no one can see the intruder, so they think he is more likely to show up. Kids have thought their fears through in their own ways. They have elaborate stories going on in their minds about the burglar. See if they will tell you their imagined stories. Telling them out loud can relieve them.

2. Nighttime is also when kids are clearly tired. Exhaustion lowers defenses. So the rationales for not being afraid that hold up during the day dwindle at night. The parent becomes the source of reason and kids depend on that.

3. Nighttime raises the specter of the unknown. When the lights go out, what can't be seen is imagined. Make putting on a night light in the bedroom or hall a regular habit.

4. Some nighttime routines are too hectic, especially when there are several kids to put to bed. Careful routines should be put in place including undressing and dressing for bed, baths, teeth brushing, and reading a night time story. Don't forget the peaceful story.

5. When these routines are changed for various reasons fears get churned up. In contrast, when the routines are kept tightly in place, they result in feelings of predictability and fears are lessened.

6. At night alone in bed there are no distractions. In comparison to constant daytime activity, nighttime has nothing to divert your child's attention, so she focuses more on what's winding her up in her mind. Favorite stuffed animals and toys to hold on to usually help.

A Gentle Warning: Your child is not seeking extra attention and trying to manipulate you. He or she is really scared. So patience, empathy, reassurance, and explaining reality go a long way. Your scared child will be grateful.

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Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. is a psychoanalyst who writes about child development, parenting and Parental Intelligence.Her recent book is Unlocking Parental Intelligence: Finding Meaning in Your Child's Behavior described on her website and found on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Familius and wherever books are found.