One of my most vivid memories of childhood is sneaking down to sleep on the floor outside my parents' bedroom. Why would I do that? Because of Dr. Suess! Yes, as a child I was terrified of anything related to Dr. Suess. Weird? I always thought so until I got older and thought less about the actual fear and more about what might have triggered it. Many years later, I realized that those fears came to life at a time of great loss, change and adjustment for me, and the fear I developed was my way of coping.
Totally normal. Who knew?
Small children develop fears of lots of things, some more logical than others. Some of the most common childhood fears include:
• Floods, storms or natural disasters
• War and terrorism
• Monsters, ghosts
• Loss of a parent
• Being alone
• Being hurt
Some of these fears are based in reality, some not so much – but they all share a common thread: they are all very real to the child who is afraid. Scary thoughts often rear their ugly heads at nighttime, especially during the preschool years when the imagination is developing at an increased rate and kids don't yet know how to turn it off.
As it turns out, fear is actually a good thing and a very healthy part of growing up and learning to manage feelings and emotions. The process of facing and working through fears is a key step in the development of confidence and problem solving. But, what can you do in the here and now when all you want is a good night's sleep for the whole family?
Some might suggest fun fixes like "anti-monster spray" or a nightly closet check for ghosts to reassure a frightened child that the coast is clear. I’m not a fan of these methods since they seem to reinforce the idea that these scary creatures do, in fact, exist. Here are a few suggestions to try instead:
• Make bedtime a peaceful time. Wind down with lights dim and electronics off. Stay away from TV and news shows that could plant the seed for little imaginations to run wild when night falls. Consider a white noise machine, soothing music or nature sounds.
• Make the bedroom a peaceful place. Is it possible to keep the majority of toys in a separate room to lessen stimulation? Do your best to eliminate distractions that could disrupt a restful slumber.
• Focus on calm comfort. This could include anything from rocking or gentle massage to storytelling or the reading of a favorite book. One way to plant positive thoughts at the end of your little one's day is to assemble a book filled with peaceful photos, like baby animals sleeping or happy family memories. Read through it slowly, soothing with your voice, letting the tranquil mood take over.
• Most importantly, be sure to respect and reassure your child. An interrupted night’s sleep can be frustrating but parenting doesn't end when the lights go down. Instead of scolding, shaming, or trying to inject too much reason, let your little one know that you, too, had fears once, but you learned how to conquer those fears. Offer kisses and hugs, a nightlight, or perhaps even a place in your room if that works for you. Acknowledging your child's feelings and helping him work through them will only benefit your whole family with a more self-assured child in the future.
Wendy Cray Kaufman is an advertising copywriter, freelance writer, vegetable enthusiast, and the founder of ABCs and Garden Peas, a Central PA-based blog about natural parenting. When she's not writing, Wendy can usually be found chasing her energetic 2-year-old in the family’s garden.