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How to Help with Nighttime Fears

Preschoolers cling firmly to their beliefs, so dealing with their fears can take considerable patience. It helps to know that although 3- and 4-year-olds are highly susceptible to scary thoughts, the right response on your part can help them work through their anxiety.

A preschooler's fears stem largely from his active imagination and from the difficulty he has distinguishing fantasy from reality. Just as he trusts that Santa will visit on Christmas Eve, he may also believe that monsters lurk under the bed. Three- and 4-year-olds are also making huge cognitive leaps, so they're more aware of danger. Their growing sense of independence heightens this awareness. "As little kids step away from us, they realize how big the world is and how vulnerable they are," says Nancy Jordan, a psychotherapist in Bellevue, Washington. In response, they ricochet from an "I'm a big kid" attitude to one of "Don't leave me; I'm scared."

"But It's Real to Me"

By the time she's 5 or 6, your child will understand more clearly what's real and what isn't, and her fears will generally diminish. Until then, you may be tempted to comfort her by stating the obvious -- that monsters aren't real. But this is unlikely to help.

No matter how unrealistic your child's fears may seem to you, they are real to him. "Telling a child that he shouldn't be afraid doesn't make him feel brave," says Marilyn Segal, Ph.D., a evelopmental psychologist at Nova Southeastern University, in Fort Lauderdale. "It only adds a new fear -- that he can't tell you he's afraid because you'll think he's a baby." Similarly, teasing and belittling serve only to keep fears hidden.

Forcing a child to confront her fears is also unproductive, says Madeleine Nathan, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Newburyport, Massachusetts. At the same time, she says, letting a child rely on you completely for protection from imaginary terrors won't help her overcome them. If your 4-year-old fears going to the bathroom alone at night, go with her at first, Dr. Nathan suggests. Over the following few weeks or months, ease yourself out of the picture.

Reinforce progress and practice, practice, practice. That's what Carla Mitchell did when her 3-year-old, Kristen, developed an aversion to costumed characters. "It took a lot of visits to Chuck E. Cheese's and amusement parks, but each time, seeing the characters got a little easier," says Mitchell, of Douglasville, Georgia.

Encourage your child to talk about what he's afraid of and why. "Often if you're able to talk about your child's fears, they become less scary," says Jane Nelsen, Ed.D., coauthor of Positive Discipline A-Z (Prima Publishing, 1999). You could also reveal a childhood fear of your own and explain how you overcame it.

If some elements of your preschooler's fears are reasonable, acknowledge that. For children with a fear of big dogs, for instance, "point out that sometimes being afraid of dogs is good," Dr. Segal says. "Then help your child recognize signs of a friendly dog, such as tail wagging, and come up with a strategy for coping with unfriendly dogs."

Sometimes insight can put a fear to rest. At 3, Allison Cohen, of Davie, Florida, was terrified of clowns. That Halloween, Allison had a chance to watch a friend of her parents dress in his clown costume. "He left off the makeup," says Allison's mother, Brandy, "and she realized that clowns are just regular people."

For a fear of monsters or other fantastical creatures, of course, logic and demonstrations are impossible. Your best bet is to empower your child by helping him find a way to transform or banish the object of his fear. Invoke the same kind of magical thinking that inspired the fear, Dr. Nathan suggests. Your child might line up his stuffed animals by the window to guard against an intruder or keep "monster repellent" (a spray bottle filled with "magic" water) by his bed.

Having handy words to shout or a song to sing can also work. If your son is convinced that a big green monster is hiding in the closet, help him think of a simple phrase like "Go away, monster!" Then the two of you can check to make sure the coast is clear. Other children are helped by a comfort object. One 4-year-old found a sense of protection by wearing his father's T-shirts to bed. Remember that it's best to let your child take the lead in creating her own fear-fighting plan. "Ultimately, the more capable a child feels," Dr. Nelsen says, "the less likely she is to be afraid."

One night, 4-year-old Lauren Nathan, a niece of Dr. Nathan, refused to let her mother leave her room but wouldn't reveal her fear. "I finally asked, 'What will make you feel better?' " recalls Lauren's mother, Cindy, of Menlo Park, California. "She replied, 'A Band-Aid for my sheet.' I got one for her from the medicine chest. We applied it to her sheet, and Lauren promptly fell asleep. It didn't make any sense to me, but it made Lauren feel a lot better."

Some fears seem to evaporate overnight, while others linger for months, even a year or two. Ultimately, what's most important is not a particular fear but the process of helping kids learn that little by little they're turning into good problem solvers and that they can defend themselves against scary thoughts.

"We want to teach that fear is a part of life and that kids can handle it," Dr. Nelsen says. "Learning this will embolden even the most fearful child."

Copyright© 2004. Reprinted with permission from the April 2001 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.