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Home Family Parenting Advice Bedtime fears — Good Parenting

Bedtime fears — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My 5-year-old has developed a fear of “bad men” at bedtime. She thinks one will take her away. Probably because her grandmother shared a news story about a missing child. I don’t know if I was more upset about yet another child abduction or the fact that now my little girl was adding this to her worries about the world. In any event, do you have some tips for helping us with getting her to bed without tears?

Distraught Dad

Don’t miss last week’s column Society missing unstructured, risky play — Good Parenting

Dear Dad,

Anything that frightens a child, or an adult for that matter, can cause heightened anxiety at bedtime. When it gets dark and quiet, our thoughts can become more vivid. These thoughts could be about anything that was leftover from the day as unsettling. Your daughter needs reassurances that her parents are always there to keep her safe. And that police officers are always on the job to look for bad people and lock them up.

In reality, the vast majority of “missing” children are with a non-custodial parent who has taken action against the custodial parent, often out of frustration over the visitation agreement. Other children who have gone missing have merely miscommunicated with their parents and are at a friend’s house or public place. Older children may have run away – for a few hours, days, weeks, or longer. The Federal Bureau of Investigation reported 797,400 missing children in 2012, most of whom had not been abducted and were quickly found in fine shape. The National Runaway Safeline reported that 72 percent of the calls they received in 2012 were about runaways who were staying with friends or relatives. Child endangerment by stranger abduction is extremely rare. Child abduction expert Gavin De Becker says, “a child is vastly more likely to have a heart attack,” which, he says most parents wouldn’t even consider as a threat to their child.

If your child has been exposed to the frightening notion that there are malicious child snatchers about, you can quell her fears through pretend play. Play therapy is guided role playing to encourage a child to act out a troubling memory (or imagined danger). In your daughter’s case, she has come to understand that a child has gone missing and a “bad guy” is assumed to be the cause. You and she can play out the parts yourselves, or use puppets, dolls, or stuffed animals. Of course you steer the story to a happy ending. The missing child was just napping under her bed, or the supposed “bad guy” seen with her was actually her daddy who neglected to tell mommy that they were going to the grocery store. (Both of these scenarios are true stories from my childhood.)

Unless a child could be useful in the search, adults need to shield little ones from news that is not age appropriate. For children who have experienced traumatic events first hand, the true story, from the child’s perspective, needs to be retold or acted out repeatedly. You need to listen to her fears and re-interpret the dramatic elements so that the child sees the roles that adults play in keeping children safe. The adult puts a slant on the story to highlight the forces that brought about an eventual happy ending. The goal is to re-play the story until the adult-directed version is more potent than the child’s memories of feeling helpless.

As for your present turmoil, it is important to establish affectionate bedtime routines for children of any age. A 5-year-old will enjoy your reading her a happy picture book or two, some quiet conversation about what she liked best about her day, and some things to look forward to the next day. Many families include prayers as part of the good night ritual. Soft caresses on her head and back can be soothing as she listens to some soft music. This could be a recording of instrumental music or lullabies, or your singing. Even if you can’t carry a tune in a bucket, your child will be calmed by the comforting cadence of your voice as it gets quieter and quieter.

There are plenty of opinions about letting a child sleep in her parents’ bed. Some parents welcome this as a sure way for everyone to get some sleep. Alternatively, a parent can cozy up with a child if the child’s bed has enough room. Or either parent or child can “camp out” on a sleeping bag on the floor of the other’s bedroom. Think of co-sleeping as a temporary need, rather than a permanent arrangement, and your child will let you know when she doesn’t need it any more.

If a child is going through a rough patch at bedtime, it will help for you to plan on spending more time than usual at getting it right. Start your reassurances a couple of hours before. “What was that bizarre story Grandma was talking about?” “Oh yeah, the little girl who went for a walk and forgot to tell her Mommy.” Talk about the thoughts — “your special grown-ups always make sure they know you are safe,” or things that will help your daughter to be brave — a night light, a stuffed animal or two, a favorite blanket, and of course you. Some children buy into “monster spray” or dream catchers, which you can bring up if you think one of these will do the trick. Imagination is a wonderful tool when used on the good guys’ side.

And as future prevention, please try to keep scary news items away from children.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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