Q. My 3-year-old is terrified of the "monsters" under his bed -- it's gotten to the point where he wakes up screaming a couple nights a week. It's exhausting for everyone in the house, and I feel terrible for my child. What can I do to help him get over this fear? Does he need to see a child psychologist?
A. Nighttime can be a scary time for children! Your son is at the age when his vivid imagination is developing, and nightmares can be frequent: Preschoolers often distort reality during sleep and in their dreams. For example, a funny cartoon character your child saw during the day may be morphed into a monster during a dream.
You shouldn't blame yourself for your child's fear -- it's not your fault. Nor do his bad dreams reflect an underlying emotional or psychological problem. There's no need to seek out a monster-exterminating child psychologist. Instead, try these techniques to help your child have a more fulfilling and peaceful night's sleep.
Turn a problem into an opportunity. Helping your child manage his fear is an opportunity for you to shine. He's convinced that monsters are under his bed -- in comes "Superparent" to calm his nighttime fears. It's a chance to build trust between you and your son, and plant the seeds for later communication, when problems are greater than the monsters under his bed.
Acknowledge the fear. Don't ignore, devalue, or try to extinguish his fear with phrases like "Big boys don't get scared" or "Don't be a baby." Insensitive putdowns like these will only teach your son that something is wrong with him. Not only will he be afraid of monsters in his bedroom, he'll be afraid to tell you about other things he's scared of. Instead, discuss how it's normal for growing kids to have these fears, and how Mommy and Daddy also had these fears when you were his age. Whatever you do, don't use your child's nighttime fears as punishment: "The Boogie Man will get you tonight if you scream at Mommy like that."
Draw out his fears. Encourage him to talk about the imaginary monster and ask him to draw a picture of what he thinks the monster looks like. This way you respect his feelings and convey that you empathize with him.
Track the trigger. Minimize scary stories, scary TV (even the evening news can provoke nightmares), and certain cartoons if the monster your child draws looks suspiciously like a kids' show character.
Don't chase the monster away. An oft-advised fearbuster is for parent and child to walk into the bedroom, look under the bed and in the closet, and "chase the monster out of the bedroom." Not only is this downright dishonest, but all it does is reinforce to your child that there really is a monster in his bedroom -- which might make matters worse.
Tell the truth. Emphasize to your child that monsters are only pretend characters on TV or in storybooks. It's a parent's job to help her child separate real from imaginary characters.
Make nighttime a less scary environment. If he's really fearful, perhaps it's too much to expect him to handle sleeping alone in a dark, scary room during this phase. Ask him if he'd like to sleep in a "special bed" (his mattress at the foot of your bed) for a week. If he gets excited about the idea, take it as a clue that he needs an injection of nighttime parenting. But be sure to set rules. Tell him, "If you wake up, you have to stay in your special bed and not wake up Mommy and Daddy because we need our sleep at night, too. Otherwise, we'll be a cranky Mommy and Daddy the next day, and that's no fun."