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Child's fears have interrupted bedtime


Q: For the past week, our 3-year-old daughter says she sees a “scary man” in her room. My husband and I have done everything we know to calm her fears. I’ve been sleeping with her in a different room for several days now. I know this is a temporary situation, but what do you suggest we do?

Juli: It’s pretty common for children between 2 and 4 to experience intense fears. As a child enters the preschool years, her brain develops the ability to think beyond the concrete. In other words, she can imagine things that she can’t see, feel or touch. While this new ability opens the door for imaginative play and role playing, it also means that your daughter can imagine things that are scary and potentially harmful.

Most parents in this situation will try to accommodate their children’s fears by sleeping with them, or as you tried, switching bedrooms. This strategy often backfires because it reinforces the child’s fear. At some level, the accommodation validates that there might be something scary in her room. It also rewards the fearful behavior with extra attention.

While your daughter is able to imagine a scary man in her room, she can also imagine superheroes or angels watching over her. When my boys were scared, I asked them to picture angels watching over them and think about what their names might be. This channeled the power of their imagination into something positive.

Additionally, I recommend transitional objects. These are items, like a special stuffed animal or blanket, that help children feel comforted when they’re not with their parents. Consistent bedtime rituals like reading a book, prayer, cuddling or soothing music also help children relax at bedtime.

You’re right that this is temporary problem. However, be consistent and confident as you address this because bedtime battles usually persist throughout childhood, just taking different forms.

Q: My husband doesn’t think our 4-year-old daughter needs to say “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am.” He never talks that way either, but I was raised in a family where having good manners was very important. What do you think?

Jim: Good manners are certainly important. Public Agenda conducted a survey in which nearly eight in 10 respondents said that lack of respect and courtesy is a serious national problem, and six in 10 said the problem is getting worse. Respondents also blamed parents for not instilling courtesy in their children, and popular culture for encouraging rude behavior. Clearly, parents need to impress the importance of courtesy upon their kids. As the father of two rambunctious boys, I know that can sometimes be a challenge!

When it comes to specific phrases such as “Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir,” the lines seem a little less clear. Those terms were obviously a very important part of your own upbringing. I know people from Southern states who still use them extensively, while folks from other parts of the country don’t use them at all. Are the non-Southerners rude? No, they just express courtesy in different ways. The underlying principles of “Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir,” for kids at least, seem to be “respect for authority” and “deference to those who are older than you are.” I would suggest, though, that it’s possible to teach your kids those principles without insisting that they use “ma’am” and “sir” in every instance.

You and your husband might work together to devise a list of the good manners you hope to cultivate in your kids. Then, decide whether those manners need to be tied to specific words or customs, or if they’re simply guiding principles for good behavior.

Jim Daly is president of Focus on the Family, host of the Focus on the Family radio program, and a husband and father of two.

Dr. Juli Slattery is a licensed psychologist, co-host of Focus on the Family, author of several books, and a wife and mother of three.

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