It's dark. The wind is blowing outside and in the shadows I see the curtain move...
Tap. Tap. Tap...
My heart pounds. There's a scream choking my throat, and I can hardly breathe. I lie frozen, too scared to move in case "It" spots me. My eyes dart to a rustle in corner. I squeeze them shut. After a while my body begins to ache from lying in the same position. But I stay still, waiting desperately for morning...
I spent countless nights like this as a child. I would lie in my bed, so locked in terror that I couldn't even call out, for what felt like hours on end. As a result, I have a lot of sympathy for scared little kids.
If your child's anxiety is more than just an ordinary childhood fear, get professional help. This post is not about dealing with clinical problems (I'm not qualified to address those), only everyday ones.
1. The only way out is through
Fear is part of being alive and it serves an important survival function. It’s unpleasant, but often unavoidable. Irrespective of whether we need help our kids chase away bedtime monsters, coach them through stage fright or teach them how to deal with schoolyard bullies, I believe the goal should always be to guide them through it, rather than to eliminate the object of their fear. It's important not only to soothe a frightened child, but also to teach coping skills that will help them carry on in spite of their fear.
2. Meet them where they're at
Having someone say: "There's nothing to be afraid of," never helped me when I was little. All it did was make me feel both stupid and scared. It's far more helpful to patiently acknowledge your child's fear without judgement, provide a 'safety net', and encourage them to keep going anyway. Try saying something like: "I know it’s scary, but I also know you can do this. It gets easier each time you try," or "I know you're scared, that's OK. Try anyway, I'm right here, I'll catch you if fall"
3. Scary doesn't mean dangerous
That said, providing clear and accurate information about the object of a child’s fear, when they are calm, can make an enormous difference, particularly with older children. When I was a kid, I was absolutely terrified that there were sharks or crocodiles in our swimming pool. It was only after I learned the specific details around sharks' and crocodiles' habitats that I was able to gradually let go of this mini-phobia.
Also, just because something is scary, doesn't necessarily mean it is dangerous. Take the fear of flying, for instance: Aviophobia (yes, that's what it’s called) is common, but flying is uncommonly safe. Once a child is mature enough, teach them that feeling fear does not automatically imply danger and they’ll cope much better.
4. Don't "feed the monster"
A recent incident at a local school brought this home to me: A Mom learned that kids were playing "Charlie-Charlie" at school. Concerned about the possible psychological effects of the game, particularly on younger and more impressionable children, she asked the school to address it.
Instead of explaining the physics of the game in an age-appropriate way, the school immediately banned any discussion of it among the children, described it as "dangerous", and threatened children with expulsion if they were caught playing it. Of course, this only escalated the fears of those children who were already terrified. Added to this was the fact that these children were now effectively forbidden from even expressing their fears.
This is what I call "feeding the monster": Rather than starving it by supplying facts, the school (and even some parents) let it to gorge itself on their paranoia. I also doubt that this approach tarnished the appeal of the game for those fascinated by it - forbidden fruit is always the sweetest.
5. Provide a sense of control
Mr Pieman is an imaginative child. He has imaginary friends, plays all sorts of "pretend" games...and used to be convinced that that there were ghosts, monsters and zombies in his bedroom at night. He's also prone to nightmares.
After we had several nights of disturbed sleep where he ended up in our bed, I had a brainwave: I decided we'd make a "scary movie" together. First, I had him draw a series of pictures of the monsters that scared him, and then I had him tell me a story about them. We then turned his ideas into a little movie, using the pictures as the visuals while he narrated the story. (You can watch the movie on YouTube here).
This might not work for all kids, but since then we've had no more fearful bedtimes, no seeing monsters in the dark and very few nightmares. I'm not sure whether it’s because he realized that he was simply telling himself scary stories, or because the "scare-value" of ghosts and zombies disappeared when he made up a benign story about them, but it seems to have helped him realize that he's the one in control of his thoughts.
6. Provide a distraction
I often wake in the early hours of the morning with wild anxieties swirling through my brain. Of course, there's nothing I can do about them at 2am, so I distract myself with podcasts or audiobooks. This works with Mr Pieman too. I have a few different children's bedtime meditations and audiobooks, and I let him listen to them when he's restless. They require just enough concentration to provide a distraction, without over-stimulating him. You could also try letting your child listen to soothing music or watch a lava lamp.
7. Share a room
Sometimes being alone is just too much for a little kid. I think that if I'd shared a room with one of my sisters while I was growing up, I would have been far less prone to night-time fears. On the rare occasions that I did share a room with one of them, I don't recall ever being frightened.
If it's feasible, try having your frightened child share a room with a sibling, or even a pet. Mr Pieman slept through for the first time when we moved his baby brother into the room they now share. It seems that just having another warm body in the room can provide the comfort needed for a good night's sleep.
I hope these tips help! What do you do when your kids are scared? Add your thoughts in the comments below.