Dear Mr. Dad: My four-year old daughter often climbs into bed with me and my wife in the middle of the night, claiming to be scared of a tiger, crocodile, or something else. She also seems to be generally afraid of the dark. There’s a night light in her room and we never read scary stories to her. What can we do to help her get over her fears, and how do I know she’s not just making the whole thing up so she can sleep with us?
A. Even at the ripe old age of four, most children have a tough time telling the difference between reality and make believe. As a result, strange shadows and bumps in the night are enough to drive even the bravest child into mom and dad’s room. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to get her out of your bed and back into her own.
First, make sure that you and your wife are on the same page here. Your daughter will instantly know if one of you isn’t as committed to breaking her bed-hopping habit, and that will strengthen her resolve to stay right where she is – between you and your wife.
Step two may be a little controversial. Telling your child that there’s no such thing as monsters will not work. Of course you don’t want to lie to your child, but to her, those monsters are very real. So rather than confirming or denying their existence, give her some tools to fight them. Help her write and let her hang “no monsters allowed” signs around her room. Give her a bottle filled with “monster spray” that she can squirt into likely hiding places, or a “magic” flashlight she can use to “freeze” tigers, crocodiles, and the rest of her imaginary zoo. Getting a second or third night-light may also help make the dark more bearable. Brainstorm together. If she can come up with the solution herself it’ll work that much better.
Taking care of her fear of the dark is only half the battle. Now you have to get her back into her own bed. The best way to do that is to give her some control over the situation. Have her help you create a victory chart with a space for a sticker for each night that she stays in her own bed. Make every sticker a big, praise-filled deal. And if she makes it seven nights in a row, she gets a prize that you’ll decide on together.
Explain at bedtime that you’ll tuck her in and kiss her goodnight only once, so she shouldn’t expect more every time she comes into your room. When she does stray from her bed and slips into yours, silently take her hand, lead her back to her own bed, help her climb in, and then walk out. Do this as many times as it takes for her to stay put (don’t be surprised if this happens several times per night for a week or so). Naturally, she won’t get a sticker on those nights. But be very matter of fact about it—you don’t want to reward her less-desirable behavior by focusing on it too much.
By putting the three of you on one side of the fence and the behavior you are hoping to modify on the other, you’re setting up your family for success. And by allowing your daughter to be in charge of her own accomplishments you’re fostering her self-esteem and self-confidence. Oh, and you’ll get your bed back too.