As dusk begins to fall, you draw the curtains closed and switch on the lights. Everything is well-lit and clearly visible. As the evening wears on, you finish your routines of the day, and put your child to bed. You switch the light off, and shut the door.
A scream wakes you up in the middle of the night. She’s had a nightmare.
We are so used to using our eyes all the time that not being able to see clearly puts us in a state of panic. Yes, even adults keenly feel the loss of control when we cannot see what is around us. Naturally, your child will also panic if she can’t see clearly.
Adding to the problem, she has a vivid imagination, and a strange mix of fairy tales, folk lore, and characters in story books and on TV thrive in her head. All of which are a volatile combination for a nightmare.
Here are some ways you can help your child overcome these fears:
1. Go gently into the night – When twilight falls, don’t be in a hurry to draw the curtains and switch on the lights. Sit quietly in the fading light, or talk of ordinary things. Point out to your child how familiar objects like the chair on which she is sitting, the bed, the toy hanging by the wall – all look different as the light changes towards dark. Sit talking like this till it is properly dark. Show her that darkness is relative. Show her the night sky. We always say that the night sky is black. But is it really? Let her look and see for herself that rather than pure black, the sky is actually a deep dark blue. (Did you ever observe this?)
If she shows signs of fear, talk about it. When is it so dark that she is scared? If you do this for a few evenings, she will begin to be more comfortable with less light, which is all you want to achieve for the moment.
The nightmares will probably continue, because instead of a gradually fading light, she will wake into a sudden state of being surrounded by darkness.
2. Sit talking with him in a darkened room. Draw the curtains closed. Now it is dark – as dark as it is likely to get in the room. Ask him to look at the darkest corner. Hold his hand or hold him in your arms or seat him in your lap, if that is what he wants. Keep looking at the darkest part of the room. Slowly, he will be able to see that what looked like the darkest part of the room is not really dark. There is some light even there, however little it may be. Then, ask him to look around the dark room. After looking in the darkest corner, the room doesn’t seem dark! Objects are clearly outlined! He can ‘see’ in the dark!
3. Graduate to walking with him around the room in the dark. What you are seeking is greater comfort with lower and lower levels of light.
4. Create a gentle game to play in the dark – It could be something like you will call things by a different name in the dark. Suggest making up nonsense words, if you feel that will work better with her. So ‘table’ may be called ‘simsim’ and so on. As you keep playing this game, she will begin to feel that the world of the dark may be different from the world of the light (which it is! 🙂 ), but it is familiar.
5. If it’s monsters that are the culprit, you might make up a bravery dialogue, or practice a war theme. He can be the soldier that will fight the Dark Monster. Make up lines for both the monster and your child. Be guided by him. For instance, some children feel a monster will nibble at their toes. They feel most vulnerable on their toes. For such a child, the story might go like this:
Dark Monster: Wake up, child! I have come and I am going to eat your toes. (You be the Dark Monster and start the story telling, but keep your volume low – you don’t want to scare him even more!)
What makes your child feel brave? Is there a magic weapon? It doesn’t have to be a gun or a sword. You can make a talisman of any object he is attached to. His favorite marble? His special yellow car? Whatever!
Your child: Haha! Fat chance, Dark Monster! You’ll never get near my toes because I’ve got my special yellow car. If it catches you, it’ll throw you into space, and you’ll be lost forever! Hahaha! (He probably won’t sound very convinced to begin with, but practice works wonders! 🙂 )
Dark Monster: Oh no! Please, please! NOT your yellow car! Don’t bring your yellow car near me. (Yes, all the drama you can summon, with bells and whistles on! 🙂 )
Your child: I’m warning you – you have only one chance. Disappear right now, or my yellow car will come and get you!
Does this sound artificial to you? Maybe. Even the monster sounds artificial to you, doesn’t it? But it’s real to your child. So this ‘victory over the bad guy’ scenario will also sound real to your child. It will ease his fear, and he will sleep deeper and better.
Are you objecting on the grounds that you are teaching your child to use a crutch, instead of teaching her to ‘be brave’? Come on! Think of all the times you’ve been scared – you’ve used a crutch too, so don’t make such a big deal out of it.
6. Keep a bright light handy for her to switch on if she awakes from a nightmare.
7. Keep a small nightlight on anyway, if you feel that works well.
8. Debrief – in the morning, in the daytime, discuss the nightmare. Learn the details, and modify your story to take care of those details as well. The monster may have an antidote to the yellow car. Well, your child has yet another powerful weapon at her command. Maybe the monster is very ticklish, and its secret fear is that someone will tickle it. Every child knows about tickling. Just let your child threaten the monster with being tickled.
A few words of caution:
2. Don’t try any strategy every single day, unless your child initiates it. If he says, “Dad, what will I say to the Awful Ghost if he comes tonight?” get into it with gusto. But don’t make him practice his lines every night before bedtime!
3. Don’t try these strategies all at once – some will work better than others, and different ones will work under different circumstances. In fact, different tips may work for different fears. Go gently with the flow.
All the best to you! Tell me which ones you tried, what worked, what didn’t, which ideas you’ve already employed, and which new ones you’ve come up with. And now – good night and sweet dreams! I’ll see you in the morning! 🙂