As a young child, do you remember being overcome by a feeling of dread when the lights went out?With imaginations that ran rampant and an overwhelming sense of an ever-growing world, it’s very common for children to suffer some form of night-time fear. Silhouettes of innocent objects become monsters rising from the floor, and closet doors left ajar seem to have opened by themselves. Even familiar sounds can become menacing when heard in the dark of night. Sometimes it’s purely separation from their parents that can create feelings of stress. Studies on the subject have found that over 64% of children in Australia, and over 73% of Dutch children experienced some form of nocturnal fears.
Why do they arise?Night-time fears often arise from ages 5-8, even in children who had no fear as toddlers or pre-schoolers. From a developmental point of view, it makes a lot of sense. As kids grow, their worlds become bigger and wider access to television, other media and peers at school (perhaps, with older siblings) means there are more scary messages to take in, often without you being able to screen them.
The good news is, if you are aware of the issue, you can try and help! We’re not suggesting that following these tips will help your child resolve all their fears immediately….mostly, it’s a stage they will have to outgrow. However, there is a lot you can do to help them cope with their fears and get off to sleep more easily.
1. Address their fears head on - talk about them. Asking specific questions that give your child an opportunity to talk about the good, the worrying, and the strange stuff that happened that day should open up the communication lines to discover what is on your child’s mind. Open-ended questions such as ‘how was your day?’ will most likely get you nowhere. Even if the concerns seem trivial and irrational to you, try not to dismiss them or tell them not to worry about it. Instead, listen, or you can even encourage them to draw or write them down.
2. Talk to your child about the difference between reality and fantasy. Show them that there is no monster in the closest, or that the bump on the floor is really just a pile of clothes. Studies have shown that children who have trouble distinguishing between reality and fantasy may be more vulnerable to night time fears.
3. Don’t let your child get over-tired. Kids (and adults for that matter) may tend to overreact to emotional stimuli the more tired they become. Experiments even suggest that the amygdala, a region of the brain that processes emotional events, becomes overactive when you are tired which could be why worries and negative thoughts tend to come to us at night. Relaxing routines, a comfy bed, and consistent bedtimes are essential and can help ease the transition from wakefulness to sleep.
4. Try visualisation and other relaxation techniques such as deep breathing. This can help set up useful skills for life! Ask them to imagine a happy place and talk them through the details of this place. It might be tree climbing in their favourite park, or playing soccer at the beach with their friends. Imagining even the smallest details can intensify the feeling of happiness. Explain that this technique can be used anytime they feel unhappy or worried, even during the day.
5. Try using a night light which can be gradually dimmed over time. Leave the bedroom door open, and maybe even introduce some soothing bedtime music. If your child is afraid of being alone and a favourite soft toy does not suffice, you could consider purchasing a bigger bed so siblings can bunk with them until fears subside.If you don’t mind having your child sleep with you, knowing the fearful period is only a phase, then by all means, go ahead. It won't be long until the fear disappears and they’re onto the next developmental milestone.
Please note: If your child suffers from severe night time fears, you should consult your family GP who should be able to recommend a specialist.