Around a year ago I had a mom bring her seven year old son to me to get help for his persistent nighttime fears.
She had the child doing a seemingly peaceful nighttime routine of him taking a shower followed by a calming story while rubbing his back in his bed. The child would fall asleep but then wake up with upsetting fears. They had also used a night-light to help this child feel more secure. This, unfortunately, did not really help a lot.
I further suggested leaving this boy's bedroom door ajar, laying with a special blanket, having him sleep with his favorite stuffed animal and then even the actual family pet, their beloved cat. These strategies all helped for a while but again the fears returned with a vengance.
With his fears having returned even more intensely than ever, I made a unique suggestion that seemed to work: I had the mother and son go to the hardware store and purchase a rope. The boy helped his mom tie the rope on his bed post and they ran the rope down the hall to the mother's bed. It is noted that the mother was married to the boy's father but he traveled out of town during most weeks. I encouraged the boy in our sessions to reach for the rope while in bed at night and give it a gentle tug to feel connected to his mother. This finally helped him get beyond his nighttime fears.
I have suggested this strategy to several other families of children ranging from four to ten years old. While I can't make a guarantee it will help in every case, I am pleased to share that it has helped in most situations when I have recommended this strategy.
As an added suggestion for children with nighttime fears, I have found that many elementary age kids respond well to visualizations and other relaxation techniques. I have children visualize themselves lying on a white puffy cloud while having them close their eyes and take deep breaths in through their nose and out through their mouth. This soothing image seems to help allay nighttime fears as well.
Please note for any peristent mental health problems, consult a mental health professional. Please also use caution with a rope in bedrooms and seek professional advice for any child at risk for self-harm.
Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein is a psychologist with over twenty-two years’ experience specializing in child, adolescent, couples, and family therapy. He holds a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the State University of New York at Albany and completed his post doctoral internship at the University of Pennsylvania Counseling Center. He has appeared twice on the Today Show, Court TV as an expert advisor, CBS eyewitness news Philadelphia, 10! Philadelphia—NBC and public radio. Dr. Bernstein has authored four books, including the highly popular 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (Perseus Books, 2006), 10 Days to Less Distracted Child (Perseus Books 2007), Liking the Child You Love (Perseus Books 2009) and Why Can’t You Read My Mind? (Perseus Books 2003).