Monsters in the Closet: Settling Children’s Nighttime Fears
Based on my conversations with many parents, the scene I described above may be going on in many homes in the evening hours; loving parents trying to solve their children’s problems with being frightened at bedtime. Well known pediatrician and expert in child development, T. Berry Brazelton, tells us in his book Touchpoints (Perseus Books, 1992) that fear comes in various forms at different stage levels of the child’s development.
He points out that the occurrence of this fear must happen in order for the child to develop a sense of self-control over the feelings of fear. The onset of fear activates a sudden surge of adrenalin that serves to teach a child how to handle this physiological reaction and to learn to sooth him or herself in that moment. Throughout the various development stages, a child has a number of life experiences that, without warning, throws him or her off balance. These occurrences provide learning opportunities for the child to adjust and adapt to the surrounding world.
Parents unknowingly play a key role in their child’s fearful experiences by helping them through it, not making a bigger issue of it than it should be. Without this awareness however, many adults inappropriately set out to eliminate the fear from their child’s experience as I had done, and rob the child of the ability to adapt and self-manage their emotions. It is an uncomfortable situation to see your child hurting emotionally and it becomes an automatic reaction of loving and uninformed parents to want to “make it all better” for their child, rather than allowing them to have the full experience.
Caregivers also get in the way of their child’s normal emotional development by attaching themselves to an experience their child has that simulates one they themselves have had at a younger age. The child suddenly becomes frightened of dogs. Seeing this reaction in their child, it instantly reignites the unresolved fear of dogs the adult had as a child. The adult then relives this childhood fear, adding their own anxiety to that of the child, inappropriately intensifying the fear for the child.
Giving in to the child and focusing on the monsters is not the answer. I suggest to parents that they help their child focus on what to do about the feeling and not on the monster. I encourage adult caregivers I’m working with to help the child focus on what he or she can do to affect his environment that might be causing the fear. By the time my other two children came along, I had learned not to focus on the monster and instead, helped to coach each of them to determine what they could do that would make their room less scary. In other words, acknowledge the feeling of the fear, but then transfer all of the rest of my energy (and theirs) to helping determine what they could do about it.
When my child would say, "there is a monster in my closet (or under the bed)," I would immediately say "It looks like you’re feeling scared... what do you think you could do to make your room less scary?" Sometimes my child would respond with "I don't know." I would then immediately say "Make believe you know." This seemed to give them permission to be creative. They would then come up with some possible solutions. One time, the solution my young daughter came up with was "I know, I can sleep with you!" I then said "That's a good idea, but Daddy is not willing to have anyone else sleep with him... what else can you come up with?" This exercise encouraged her to continue to generate ideas until she thought of one that I was OK with.
Society puts so much emphasis on each of us working so hard to acquire our academic education, but rarely are we taught about the importance of increasing our emotional intelligence. Strangely enough, our prisons are filled with those who can read, write, and add, but it was most likely their inability to manage their emotions that got them there to begin with.
The next time your children become fearful about a monster in their closet, simply acknowledge their feelings and then coach them into developing a constructive solution of making their room less scary. The result for them will be feeling like they can adapt, manage their feelings, and realize the power to manipulate their own surroundings to diminish those uncomfortable feelings. It may also lead to you healing unresolved feelings of your own.
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