When my brother was young, he had a fear of monsters hiding in the dark at night. To combat his fear, he would check that all windows and doors in the house were locked, turn on the lights in every room and check under the beds and in the wardrobes for ghouls and monsters, switch off his light and launch himself onto his bed from the doorway. It sounds funny now when I look back at it, but at the time, this process was deadly serious. Many children believed there were things under the bed that would snatch at our little legs and pull us into darkness before we could scream for help.
As a child, my personal fear was of witches coming into my room to grab me with their long, scratchy nails and bite me with their teeth. I often dreamed that they would catch me, cut me up and use me in one of their nasty potions. (I can only assume that an overdose of “The Brothers Grimm” may have contributed substantially to my frightening fantasies). I would often wake up and still see the silhouettes of the witches in the dark after my dream. It was not until I was eight years old that I was able to confront my fears. After telling myself that what I was seeing was purely shadow and that a shadow was no threat to me, I recall taking a deep breath, swinging my legs off my bed, and purposely walking through the shadows that I saw before me. This simple action gave me the strength and clarity to be able to differentiate between what was real and what wasn’t. This was a truth that no adult could teach me, but one that I learned for myself.
Recently, my little daughter began coming through to my bedroom at night and asking to be tucked back into bed. I did not understand at the time, (probably in the haze of lost sleep), that something was amiss. After she awoke me a few times, I realised that there may be a problem. Being a reticent child, I needed to find some way to make her relaxed and confident enough that she could open up about what was troubling her. One foot soak and massage session later, she told me that she had been having dreams of a robber trying to break into her room at night. It frightened her to the point that she would hear a noise and run for cover. She talked about how she felt and we explored how this fear might have originated. When it came time to develop a strategy to keep her safe, we looked at the options available to us. By tackling the issue together, she felt secure and in control of the situation. I’m happy to report that she is now a lot more confident in her ability to tackle her fear.
There are many strategies that can be adopted by children and parents to deal with the plethora of “night time monsters”. Using a substitute such as a teddy bear or favourite doll can help to ease the anxiety that a child feels when their parent is not around. Likewise, special bedtime routines like checking that the windows are locked or the gate is secure can help the child to feel safe. And having a parent, older sibling or a pet that sleeps close by, or a parent to check on them before they go to bed, might be all that they need to feel safe.
The society we see on TV on the six o’clock news is one that frightens most adults. When children see or hear of other children being taken from their beds or away from their families, and other terrible events, it has a profound effect on the child’s developing psyche. As caring parents, we must ensure that we provide not only a physically safe environment for children, but also one that protects their mental state as well. Fear manifests itself in our dreams, and the dreams children have are often vivid and know no logical boundaries.
Most children fear something that may appear to adults to be irrational, yet it is important for us not to dismiss these fears. The experience of fear itself is real, whether or not the “monster under the bed” or the witches in the room actually exist. As parents, we need to have an open ear when our children want to talk about their fear.
Helping our children to develop the virtue of courage is an imperative in the world of today and may be responsible for their survival in the world of tomorrow. We need to work with our children to help them to discover their own solutions to their fears, whether it be a process of checking the house at night, or whether it takes the form of a big, protective, cuddly knight in brown fur.
Lina-Marie Catto is a writer from Australia who lives with her husband and two daughters (aged 2 and 10) in Canberra. She recently retired from the Australian Public Service after 23 years to concentrate on writing children's fiction. Lina has many, varied interests and writes to fulfil her long term dream of entertaining through the written word. She can be contacted by writing to PO Box 1413, Tuggeranong, A. C. T. 2901, Australia.