Q: After I tuck in my four-year-old daughter, she often yells, “There’s a monster in my closet.” I usually end up rubbing her back until she falls asleep. How can I help her?
A: My number one rule is don’t check closets and under the bed for monsters, or spray anti-monster spray around the room. These measures just validate that monsters exist.
Instead, explain that there is no such thing as monsters and it’s your job, as a parent, to make sure she’s safe. However, I suspect that won’t be enough, so try this:
Step 1: Have your daughter close her eyes. Ask her to imagine something really wonderful like her birthday party. Paint pictures in her mind: “Remember the pink icing on your cake and how everyone sang to you?” As she’s remembering, she’ll probably begin to smile. Ask her “How do you feel right now?” and she’ll reply “Happy!”
Point out that she feels happy because she is choosing to think happy thoughts. Happy thoughts equal happy feelings. If she chooses to think about monsters, she’ll feel scared. Scary thoughts equal scary feelings.
Step 2: Tell her that when she begins thinking monster thoughts, she can block them out. Demonstrate this by blowing some bubbles from a bubble wand. Ask her to smack each bubble, and say, “No—I am not thinking about monsters!” It’s a one-time teaching tool that gives her a sense of control. When she’s alone in bed and her mind wanders to thoughts of scary things, she can “fight off” these thoughts because she’s acted this out physically with the bubbles.
Step 3: Explain that not only does she need to smack out the monster thoughts, she also has to switch to thinking happy thoughts, like she did with remembering her birthday.
When your daughter gets fearful again, say, “You’ll have to stop disturbing yourself like that.” Give her a little reassurance and send her back to bed. After all, if she learns that being afraid gets extra after-hours parental attention in the form of back rubs, she will be less motivated to actually make this work!