In the season of all things spooky, the darkness of the night can often stir up fears and anxiety in both adults and children. It’s important to acknowledge that fear and anxiety at bedtime are not uncommon. Studies have shown that almost 75% of children have nighttime fears and anxiety, and more than 40 million adults in the US suffer from anxiety disorders, which often affect sleep. In this post, we’ll explore the distinction between specific bedtime fears and general anxiety, talk about how to identify triggers and discover practical strategies to combat bedtime fear and anxiety for both you and your child.
Fear vs. Anxiety
Before we get to fixing nighttime frights, it’s important to distinguish between two similar, but distinct problems: specific bedtime fears and general nighttime anxiety. Nighttime fears often take the form of well-defined, tangible phobias. Think of the classic boogeyman or the fear of the dark, which children commonly experience. These fears have clear, identifiable triggers, and whether rational or not, the person can typically tell you exactly what they are afraid of at night. In contrast, general nighttime anxiety is a broader, less defined sense of unease or nervousness about bedtime and sleep. It may not have a specific trigger and can be linked to stress, overstimulation, or worry. In my practice, I often see more specific nighttime fears in children, while adults are more prone to general anxiety about sleep.
Dealing with Specific Fears in Children
Many children suffer from specific bedtime fears, which isn’t a huge surprise considering this is often the only time they are 1. Alone for an extended period of time, 2. Have nothing to do but stay still and be quiet, and 3. Are in the dark. These fears are often anchored in the tangible, like monsters under the bed or the unknown lurking in the shadows. One thing you definitely don’t want to do is goof around and make up scary stories or try to scare your child by telling them things like the boogeyman lives in the attic (here’s looking at you, dad!). Many parents are at a loss for how to help their children cope with scary bedtime situations. Here are a few tried and true strategies:
- Open the Conversation: Encourage your child to talk about what is scaring them and why. Give them a safe space to express their fears, and provide a listening ear when they bring up things they are afraid of. Empathize with their fear, but help talk them through the rationality of the things that worry them and the reality of their safety.
- Don’t Affirm Fears: Avoid affirming their fears through actions like checking under the bed or in the closet, or allowing kids to sleep with the lights on. Such actions can inadvertently validate their phobias, making them more real.
- Assure Safety: Reassure your child that they are safe. Gently remind them that bedtime is a time for rest, and that your job is to ensure their safety.
- Identify and Remove Triggers: Identify any triggers that may be contributing to their fear. This could be items that create eerie noises at night or objects that cast ominous shadows. Removing these triggers can transform the bedtime environment into a haven of calm.
- Monitor Media: Pay close attention to the media your child engages with. Ensure it’s developmentally appropriate and not excessively scary. Be especially careful of the media children are engaging with at night.
- Create a Calm Sleep Space: Transform their bedroom into a sanctuary of peace. Consider adding a dim nightlight, soothing music or white noise, and comforting items like stuffed animals. These additions can offer reassurance and a sense of security.
- Make the Dark Fun: Turn the fear of darkness into a game. Have glow-in-the-dark parties during the day, add glow-in-the-dark stickers to the walls, and engage in daytime shadow puppet play. This playful approach can reduce the fear of darkness.
- Consistent Bedtime Routines: Establish calming bedtime routines and maintain consistency. Predictable routines create a sense of security.
- Bedtime Pass: Consider using a bedtime pass system. Provide your child with the option to come get you if they need to, giving them a sense of control over their sleep environment.
Dealing with General Bedtime Anxiety in Adults/Children
General bedtime anxiety, affecting both adults and children, can be more challenging to address. This form of anxiety may not have a specific trigger but can be linked to broader feelings of stress, nervousness, and uneasiness. Here are some strategies to confront it:
- Meditation and Deep Breathing: Practice meditation and deep breathing exercises. These techniques can soothe the mind and body. Start by mastering them during the day under lower-stress conditions before transitioning to nighttime application.
- Journaling: Try journaling at night before bed. Pour out your thoughts and concerns onto the pages, emptying your mind of everything that is causing stress or the things that typically swirl around your brain as you are trying to wind down. Close the journal and put it away when you are done, symbolizing the act of putting your concerns to rest for the night.
- Disengage from Electronics: Disconnect from electronics and media at least 45 minutes before bedtime. The blue light emitted by screens can disrupt sleep patterns and increase anxiety. Take some time to engage in lower-energy wind-down activities that help you slow down and relax.
- Calming Bedtime Routines: Develop and adhere to calming and consistent bedtime routines. These rituals, whether reading a book or taking a warm bath, signal to your brain that it’s time to unwind.
- Dietary Considerations: Be mindful of what you consume. Avoid caffeine after noon, and steer clear of alcohol and substances before bedtime, as these can disrupt sleep and contribute to bedtime anxiety.
In the heart of spooky season, bedtime fears and nighttime anxiety don’t have to be part of the package. By implementing these simple yet effective solutions, you can make bedtime a peaceful transition from the day to a restful night. However, if you or your child continue to struggle with conquering bedtime fears, don’t hesitate to seek the guidance of a sleep professional. They can offer specialized support to ensure that every night is filled with restful, peaceful sleep.