We noticed our daughter Rachel’s nighttime fears when she was four. After watching a family movie or reading a bedtime story, she’d feel too afraid to sleep. So we avoided scary movies and books. But then, in grade five, the curriculum included a semester on mysteries. Clearly, we could not shield our daughter from every little thrill and chill.
So we asked her aunt, Daliah Chapnik, and Caryn Moulton, both psychologists at the CAP Centre in Aurora, Ont., for tips on how to slow her imagination down once the lights are out. Here’s what they suggested.
What parents can do
Validate and acknowledge Try not to minimize or dismiss your child’s fears, no matter how silly they may sound. This can lead to shame.
Get logical In the light of day, ask your child how realistic her fears are. After school is an ideal time — far enough from bedtime that she can think without panicking.
Read books Sometimes I’m Scared by Jane Annunziata and Marc Nemiroff, for example, outlines easy steps kids can use to overcome everyday fears.
Limit scary stories Choose books and movies carefully, and watch how many your child takes in. This will help introduce fantasy themes gradually.
What kids can do
No thinking at night When kids are alone, thoughts can take on a life of their own. Before snuggling in, your child can make a conscious decision not to let her mind wander to scary thoughts. Have her think of something positive or happy that is coming up.
Keep a worry box If scary thoughts just won’t go away, encourage your child to turn on the light, write down the worry and close the lid. He can read the note tomorrow when it’s easier to think.
Visualize a happy place To distract himself from negative thoughts, your child can go to a place he loves — in his mind — using his senses to help him feel like he’s there (smell the surf, hear the waves, feel the wind).
Take 10 deep breaths Diaphragmatic breathing — slowly filling and emptying the lungs — can help beat a fear-induced adrenalin rush. To practise, your child can lie flat with a book on her tummy and imagine a balloon pushing it up as she draws in air.
Be a wet noodle When you are scared, you feel rigid, restless and tense — like dry spaghetti. Teach your child to tense, then release each muscle, starting with her feet and moving up to her neck. This will trick her body out of anxiety and into sleep.
Be your own mother If your child can’t sleep, have him imagine what you would say (“You’re safe — we’re right in the next room”) and replace your soothing voice with his own.
If the anxiety escalates into a pattern of behaviour that impacts your child’s life — she can’t sleep alone, avoids school or parties, or explodes with fear on a regular basis — call an expert for advice.