Scared to Sleep: What Can a Parent Do?

I’d barely left the room when my son’s cries started. Again, like the previous night, another nightmare. We followed our routine. First, a nice bath. Then a few of his favorite books. We read them together, laughing and letting our imaginations bring the stories to life. Yet, my son was scared to sleep.

I was beside myself. I clicked on the light and looked around the room. After all, it was the perfect bedroom for a little boy. Still, he sat up in his bed, tears in his eyes. As he called to me, I walked to his bed and sat down to comfort him.

I was resigned to the fact that this was just a phase. But it was all too real for him, and far too frightening. He was so scared to sleep that I hated leaving him alone. However, I knew there had to be something I could do.

Taking Out Fear

Before I could help him, I had to know what was scaring him. His room was perfect to me. All his favorite superheroes covered the walls. The same little lamp from his nursery was lit. A little cone of light ran up the wall. “What was it?” I asked him. He was too scared to answer. Instead of digging deeper just then, I went into full mommy mode and soothed him. After a bit, he was sound asleep.

This went on for close to a week. Afterwards, he was finally ready to talk about what scared him. Don’t assume it’s the typical monster-in-the-closet scenario. In the daylight, his room was cheerful. When the lights went out, however, the room transformed to his eyes. Shadows danced. Those posters on his wall of his favorite characters? They came to life in the dark. He was scared, but also a little embarrassed to share that detail with me.

After some adjustments to his décor, all was better again. Take note that there are sounds and shadows that escape detection during the commotion of the day. But when the lights are dimmed and background noise is gone, they are amplified. Consequently, that small cone of light from his lamp created shadows that loomed. The heater no longer cycled on and off. In the still of the night it roared to life. In his mind, its echoes filled the room.

Take the Imagination for a Spin

I love story time with our son. It’s always a blast. His imagination kicks my own into gear. As a writer, it’s inspiring. But like anything else, that imagination can be a double-edged sword. His imagination is still young, and without the knowledge required to ground out irrational fears. Think about this in detail. Was that story you read together as innocent as it sounded? How about the cartoons he watched? Always keep these things in mind.

Consider taking that imagination and turning it into an ally. What worked for us was to find stories that made monsters likeable characters. They feared us, as we feared them. It’s a sort of common-ground finding experience at the child’s level. During the day, introduce stories that explain the science between shadows and light. Perhaps perform some experiments of your own with light and shadows.

For most children knowledge is the best way to take fear out of a situation.

Analyze Those Dreams

It’s not always a noise from the shadows causing the fear. It could be something else. When he was ready, I asked my son about his dreams. I recommend you do the same. It could be that something happened and it’s manifesting itself through his or her dreams. For my son, it was an event at his preschool. After talking it over, we sorted it out.

Undoubtedly, major events will cause issues. Those are the easy ones to identify. On the other hand, seemingly insignificant events can have an impact too. Whether it’s an incident at school, or even something that happened to a friend, it could cause fear. Talk to your child about these things. It’s important not to gloss over the little details. In the end, they could be the source of anxiety.

After talking to your child, reflect on what you learned. Is it a simple fix? On the other hand, it could be an indication of something much larger that needs attention. Talking to your child is the first step in letting them know you are there to listen. If there is a larger problem to concern yourself with, these small conversations will help bring them into the open.

Taking Action

You’ve done your part. Your little guy is soothed, and ready to sleep. Keep those nighttime fears at bay with these points:

  • Declutter the bedroom. Take away those hiding spaces for shadows to play.
  • Sit in the dark room with your child. Explain the noises and shadows as he points them out.
  • Is there a part of the room that is scarier than others? Is it under the bed, or in the closet? Look in these places with them. Keep a flashlight by their bed so they can take on the shadows with confidence.
  • Consider a sound machine to mask the noises that scare them. This is a favorite in our house. Our older children still sleep with their sound machines on.
  • Avoid scary movies in the evening. Easier said than done, right? All their friends are watching the latest action or fantasy movies. Peer pressure appears in many different forms.

These are just a few suggestions. Additionally, don’t be an enabler. Bringing your child into your bed or sleeping in their room won’t alleviate the fear. Address their fears and acknowledge them. When they try to sleep alone after a nightmare, give them praise. Remember when you felt this way? What helped you get over your own fears of sleeping? Without a doubt, it wasn’t being scolded or having your fears minimized. Out of frustration, it’s the easy thing to do. In the end, it will always be your voice and reassurance that takes away fear from your child.

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