Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Dealing with Tears & Fears at Bedtime

In the past two weeks, C has hit the imagination explosion that characterizes many three-year-olds full force. It has been a delight to hear and watch her extended fantasy play.

And yet, as this article on Common Childhood Fears points out:

Children’s imagination becomes extremely active at ages three and four. Three and four year olds tend to be a very fearful group. Typical fears involve the dark, scary, noises, masks, TV monsters, animals, being alone, and burglars. They worry about being harmed by superhuman creatures.  Young children are egocentric and have difficulty discriminating between fantasy and reality. 

This has proven true as well.  Right around her third birthday about a month ago, we started helping C to fall asleep without us.  We'd do a bedtime routine, and stay by her bed for a little while to help her get settled, and then we'd have to "check on something."  She didn't fall asleep right away, and there were usually at least three ups and downs or requests for us to come back and help her with something before she drifted off, but it was peaceful and pleasant.

But since the imagination explosion, she is suddenly bursting into tears when we leave the room and has been saying she's scared or afraid.  After a few nights like this, I realized I needed to reevaluate if our routine was still meeting our family's needs.

Though it had been nice to be able to leave the room and check on things while C fell asleep mostly on her own, it was clear that being rigid about enforcing her being alone in the room at the moment sleep arrived wasn't meeting her emotional needs at this new stage in her development.

Her fears are absolutely real to her, and my presence with her to help her through them teaches her deeper lessons about unconditional love, my trustworthiness and availability to comfort her during hard times, and ultimately, provides a living lesson in God's constant comforting presence.

This morning C told me that she had a scary dream about a bear.  Tonight at bedtime she told me she was afraid the bear was going to come and stand outside her window.

Rather than discount her fear and be dismissive, for example by saying that it was silly to be afraid because the bear was only in her imagination, I took her seriously and walked her through brainstorming a solution that took advantage of the strength of her imagination.

"It would be scary for a bear to be outside your window," I said.  "What can we do to help the bear stay away?  I know!  What are bears scared of?  Let's think."

C and I tapped our chins as we thought of ideas.

"Pigs!" C exclaimed after a short time.

"Bears are scared of pigs, that's right," I replied as if she had just reminded me of this truth.  "So if that bear is coming, you can scare him away by making a noise like a pig.  Let's practice."

Then I pretended to be a silly-scary bear, complete with roars and hand-claws and exclamations of "I'm coming to get you!" in a funny voice.

"Oink! Oink!" C said with a grin.

I shrank back in exaggerated fear.  "Oh no! I didn't know there were any pigs here.  I'm scared of pigs!  I better run away!"

C giggled.

We repeated the game several times as we continued through the bedtime routine.

There's a show C likes to watch called Miffy.  Miffy is a bunny who is friends with pigs and bears.  The last time we played the bear-pig game, I said, "Wait! I'm Boris Bear!  Poppy Pig, I'm your friend, remember me?"

We talked about how some bears were nice, and maybe the bear outside her window was really Boris, and he wanted to be her friend too.

She still asked me to stay until she fell asleep.  I went and got my knitting, and watched her arm fall limp before I even finished a row of 28 stitches.

1 comment:

  1. THANK YOU for posting this! My son is turning 3 this weekend & I'm already noticing a lot of "pretend" play & nightmares. Thank you for your example of how to respond to night fears... I'm going to try to put this into practice.

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