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Monsters in the Closet: Bedtime Basics for Parents

Posted Aug 24 2008 1:49pm
ANNOUNCER: They can have five heads, or stand as tall as a building, or ooze green slime and fly. Who are they?

They're the monsters hiding in the closet, under the bed or behind the door. And they're only seen by kids, and of course, only seen at night.

JODI MINDELL, PhD: All of a sudden, they start to understand there's things that can hurt them and their imagination is flourishing and so what they're scared of is not the crossing the street with traffic or not the stranger, what they're scared of is these imaginary creatures. And so you get many, many toddlers who are afraid at bedtime that there's a monster under their bed. These are fears are totally normal and are part of typical development.

ANNOUNCER: No matter what their shape or form, those monsters are not the most agreeable bedtime companions.

DANIEL LEWIN, PhD: Nighttime fear is a very important cause of toddlers having difficulty making the transition to sleep.

ANNOUNCER: Heightened awareness is a natural instinct, an evolutionary trait, to keep humans on the alert for danger.

DANIEL LEWIN, PhD: We'd like to know what's around us and that's important for our survival. So letting down vigilance, by definition, should not be easy. So for adults, we've learned lots of ways to let down vigilance. We can talk to ourselves, we can tell ourselves that we're safe, we know where the telephone is if there's a problem, we know that we can turn on a light, we can tell ourselves that everything will be okay, that we'll be okay the next morning.

ANNOUNCER: But try telling that to your child.

DANIEL LEWIN, PhD: Some toddlers make the transition to sleep beautifully and we don't need to worry about them. But other toddlers have much more difficulty making the transition to sleep, because they don't let down vigilance easily.

ANNOUNCER: To any child, the appearance of bedtime fiends is serious business.

DANIEL LEWIN, PhD: Nighttime fears are, first of all, very real. Some children who have a little bit more anxiety during the day, a little bit more trouble calming down at night, may have far more fears at night. And, for those children, helping them with those fears is very, very important.

ANNOUNCER: What parents don't want to do is give the monsters too much airtime.

JODI MINDELL, PhD: Parents need to be careful about that because they're walking a fine line in that, if you do too much and overreact to it, what you may be is reinforcing is that there really is something to be scared of.

ANNOUNCER: What parents do want to do is acknowledge that their child's fear is very real, if only to the child

JODI MINDELL, PhD: Laughing at a toddler's fears or denying them is just like them laughing at you for some worry you have. It doesn't help, it hurts, it makes you feel like you can't go to your parents whenever you're concerned.

ANNOUNCER: Anticipating the "monster's arrival" is a good approach.

DANIEL LEWIN, PhD: What we recommend is that the parent talk to the child about fears three to four hours before bedtime, so that those fears can be addressed and put aside. If they reemerge at bedtime, that's fine, parents can say, "We talked about those. Remember what we said, remember it's not going to be a problem." So, having a worry time set aside is very important.

ANNOUNCER: While grownups may not have spears or ray guns, there are some tactical weapons they can use to wage the battle.

JODI MINDELL, PhD: They should leave a nightlight on; they can check under the bed. We often encourage monster spray, where you take a spray bottle and you fill it with water and you spray the monsters away. So you can use creative solutions.

ANNOUNCER: But when goblins lurk in the shadows, there's nothing like mommy or daddy close by.

DANIEL LEWIN, PhD: One of the key factors that makes us feel safe and comfortable at night and allows us to let down vigilance is close social proximity. It makes them feel safe and makes them feel comfortable.

Victory against those scary monsters comes when parents help their children feel secure enough to face their invisible demons, even when parents leave the room.

JODI MINDELL, PhD: You want to make it a gradual process. You want to stay with them until they fall asleep and then, every few nights, move yourself about three to four feet away. And so, slowly, gradually, make the change, so to teach them to be able to fall asleep on their own.

Some feel much more secure and safe if you're on the same floor with them or if you're in the room next to them. Very often, what we do is we flip baby monitors around, so a parent can respond to a child and the child hears them, like, "You're okay, it's okay, it's night-night time." So a parent can talk to the child without being the room.

ANNOUNCER: Routine is what can ease bedtime for anyone, young or old, but that peaceful transition is especially important for children.

DANIEL LEWIN, PhD: Routine, regularity, routine, regularity are the most important factors. After dinner, they should engage in quiet playtime, then a bath, then getting into PJs, then reading together with the parent, then getting into bed. It doesn't have to follow that scenario, but as long as it's relatively regular, particularly for a child who's having some difficulty making those transitions from wake to sleep.

JODI MINDELL, PhD: One thing that's really helpful is to go back five minutes later and tuck them in one more time. It keeps them in their beds and they also get an extra kiss goodnight from their parents.

ANNOUNCER: With a parent's understanding and compassion, any monster, no matter how big, can be tamed.

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