Helping Kids to Cope with Nighttime Fears

March 21, 2019
Helping Kids to Cope with Nighttime Fears

After waking up from a bad dream, toddlers often want to sleep in their parents’ beds to feel safe. This is a very common phenomenon in households with children this age (around 3 years old), as it is the age at which children’s imaginations really start to take off. At the same time, they don’t have a very firm grasp on the difference between fantasy and reality, and this translates into the development of fears. Our tip this week comes from child development expert Claire Lerner, LCSW. Visit her website here for more great tips!

Think About Your Reaction

Many parents think that staying with children until they fall back to sleep is the best (and most loving) thing to do. But in fact, allowing a child to sleep in your bed or staying with him until he falls back to sleep after having a bad dream, inadvertently confirms your child’s belief that there is really something to be afraid of and that he is only okay if you are with him; that he is not safe on his own.

Instead, we want to empower them with the tools and confidence to master these fears. If you think you’re hurting your child by not physically being with her as she works through her fears, it will be difficult to follow through with any plan that entails setting some limits and boundaries around sleep. Note that research shows that allowing children to learn to sleep on their own is growth-promoting (“positive stress”) and not harmful.

Allow Them to Master Their Fears

The way children (or any of us) get over their fears is by living through them and experiencing that the fears are unfounded. For example, when a child finally goes down the big slide he was scared of and sees that he survived; or, when a child makes it through and thrives by the end of the first week of preschool after screaming at drop-off.  At nighttime the same rules apply—your child needs to experience that the fears in his head are not real and that he is okay on his own; that he doesn’t need you to be with him to be safe.

Talk During the Bedtime Routine

Use this time to talk to your child about his worries. Explain that there are different parts of our brains: we all have a “worry” brain that makes us think things are scary, like monsters or ghosts. We also have a “thinking” part of our brain that helps us know whether something is real or not.

This is a great opportunity to have your child try to problem-solve on his own. If he doesn’t like his room pitch black, suggest a night light. Or if he’s afraid of something coming in his window, ask if he would like to see how it shuts tight and can be locked.

Provide Soothing Tools

Help your child identify ways he can soothe himself when he wakes up in the middle of the night, such as: singing himself or his stuffed animal a favorite song, or hugging a memory foam pillow—something many children find very soothing. “Loveys”—those special stuffed animals, blankets, etc., that young children become very attached to—can be powerful tools for soothing children and helping them cope in stressful situations. Empowering him with tools for calming himself helps him feel in control and able to take care of himself.


For the full version of this article with more tips and information on nighttime fears, please click here.

Child Development and Parent Consultation

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