All children have fears. They worry about monsters in their closets, alligators under their beds, or “scary ghosts” at their windows. Such frightening images are part of a child’s internal world. And bedtime darkness makes a child feel even more scared and vulnerable.
The specific scary images that frighten a child can be introduced by a TV show, a movie, a fairy tale, or even a picture in a book. Some parents who try to alleviate their child’s fears by showing him a book about nice monsters may actually be giving their child something else to be afraid of. This can happen because he has difficulty distinguishing what’s real from what’s not. Once a child sees a picture of a monster, even a harmless one, he may be convinced that such a thing exists. Therefore, parents may want to keep a sensitive child from seeing scary books, television shows, or movies.
If your child tells you he’s afraid of monsters, understand that his fears are real. He really believes monsters exist. Try reassuring him: “Sometimes children think that monsters are real, but I know there are no such things.” But be careful not to pressure your child into agreeing that his fears are irrational. And don’t dismiss his fears by saying, “Don’t be afraid.” Children who are told their fears are silly will continue to feel afraid but may not openly express themselves, because they anticipate being ridiculed or shamed. Instead, they may cry, cling, or have frequent scary dreams.
Try to get your child to express his fears, since talking can help him deal with them. The inability to discuss fears can make them feel more real and give them more power. Ask your child, “What does a monster do? What does it look like? Can you draw a picture of it? Where did you think you saw it?” Such questions will help you learn more about what frightens your child. When he’s scared, you’ll probably have to spend more time comforting and reassuring him at bedtime. Children’s fears are what bring them into their parents’ bed. They feel better when their parents are close by. You may feel more patient about this if you remember your own childhood fears. Although you may have received assurance from your parents, you probably still believed that frightening things lurked in the closets and under your bed.
It should help to know that as your child grows, he’ll develop the ability to tell what’s real from what isn’t, which will help many of his fears fade. In the meantime, patience and understanding will get you and your child through this phase.