It’s Okay to be Scared – 5 Steps for Easing Bedtime Fears

Accepting our children’s emotions sounds simple in theory, but for most parents I know (and me) this is an enormous challenge. The powerful instinct we have to alleviate our children’s discomforts is, obviously, healthy and positive when their feelings reflect a need that we can fill, like offering food when they’re hungry or helping them to bed when they’re tired.
But just as often, children have feelings that we cannot and should not try to fix, because in these instances, the true “need” reflected is for children to safely experience and share the feelings. Their pain is relieved when we can bravely roll out the red carpet to welcome these emotions, even if they seem totally unreasonable and over-the-top as children’s emotions often do.

But if our children are frightened or anxious, isn’t it our job to insist, “Don’t worry, there’s nothing to be afraid of,” assuring our children that they’re safe and easing their minds? We can’t allow them continue to feel afraid, can we?

Yes, children need to know that we are doing our job to keep them safe, but as much as we might wish to, we can’t shelter them from their own imaginations. So as tempting as it might be to overrule and invalidate our child’s fears with common sense reasoning, these feelings need be allowed to exist as other feelings do. Here are some steps for responding productively to our children’s fears:

  1. Project calmness
    We calm ourselves first so we can be receptive and listen from a place of confidence and strength, rather than projecting discomfort or judgment.
  2. Accept
    We fully accept the feelings, which is sometimes all children need to be able to move through them.
  3. Explore
    We are open to exploring the fears with genuine curiosity (i.e., “What worries you most?” or “What does the monster look like?”).
  4. Reassure
    We offer reassurance by providing age-appropriate facts. In Your Self Confident Baby, Magda Gerber suggests: “If you can pinpoint what the fear is, talk about it. Explain to him in simple terms what you think he is able to understand. ‘Tigers live at the zoo. There are no tigers at our house. We have a kitty cat, don’t we?’ Accept that your child feels anxious or scared. Offer him alternatives like ‘Would you feel better if your teddy bear sleeps with you, or I put on the night-light or leave the door open?’ Tell him where you’ll be.”
  5. Consider solutions
    We explore solutions but don’t make solving the problem our goal. We proceed patiently and slowly, allowing children to take the lead as much as possible

Catherine shared an experience with her almost 3 year old son:

“I wanted to share a success story with you. I’ve read No Bad Kids three times! With each reading, my expectations of my little guy improve. I am able to see him as a whole person, and I’m also able to see him as the little boundary-testing-explorer who needs a firm anchor and gentle leader in me. I’m still learning and struggling, but I’m definitely less ‘ruffled’ these days. Thank you!

Our latest success: Henry, almost 3, has been a great sleeper for about a year. Out of the blue, he started popping out of his room after we said goodnight. This would go on for hours, with my husband gently guiding him back to bed over, and over, and over! I thought he was ‘playing games’, but my husband was sure that he was genuinely scared. I wondered,” What would Janet say?” A few nights back, as we settled in for bed, I looked him in the eye and asked if he was scared. He said ‘yes’ in a sad little voice. I thought back to when I was little and sensitive and scared. I knew how he felt. I replied, and really truly meant it: “I know you’re scared. I remember being little and feeling scared at night, I really do.” I paused, looked at him with the softest, most understanding eyes, because I could totally relate, I was such a sensitive little kid. I followed up, “It’s okay to be scared. I understand, I really do, but you have to stay in your bed at night.” That’s it. Guess who’s stayed in his bed for the last few nights?! Thank you for sharing your approach. Your guidance and insights have been invaluable.”

Catherine later added:

“As a follow-up to my initial email: At lunch today, I told him that the little cup he was drinking out of was mine when I was little. He replied, “And when you were little, you were scared.” Knowing that Mommy got scared too really left an impression!”

Jessica shared her story and insights:

“I have been sharing your web site and podcast with a lot of friends this week and revisiting some of my favorite posts from the past. I wanted to share a really lovely success we’re having in our family. My son is 3 and a half and for the past six months he’s been having a lot of bedtime fears. At first it was fear that pirates would come into our room. I got a night light, gave him some extra kisses, and explained, “Pirates are on the ocean, they don’t come to houses.” Then it was the scary owl outside the bedroom window. It was clear that we were engaged in a game of “whack-a-mole” where each time we calmed the fear in one place it popped up somewhere else. Finally, I took a step back and I thought about accepting the feelings and how I could take that approach with him. Now when he says he’s afraid as I tuck him in at night, I tell him, “Yeah, you’re feeling afraid. It’s okay to be afraid, that feeling won’t hurt you. Being afraid is a feeling like sadness is a feeling, it will come and go. You’re safe, and it’s okay to be afraid.” I can see him physically relax.

I think when I was trying to “solve” his fear I was sending him the message that fear isn’t okay, and I was creating an anxiety in him that he was afraid of being afraid. Now that I tell him it’s okay, that anxiety is gone. I feel so happy that I can give him this gift from his earliest childhood: You don’t have to be afraid of your feelings.”

In truth, our children’s feelings are gifts – precious windows into their minds and hearts — rather than problems for us to fix. These exchanges are quality time at the highest level. If we can consistently convey to our kids that we can bravely face whatever they might be going through – we aren’t afraid — then they will be able to accept these feelings as well. Our ability to accept all the uncomfortable feelings life offers us will help inform and shape a lifelong sense of security, comfort, and happiness.

Here’s how Dr. Susan David explains this healthy process in her new book Emotional Agility:

“One of the greatest human triumphs is to choose to make room in our hearts for both the joy and the pain, and to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. This means seeing feelings not as being “good” or “bad” but as just “being.” Yes, there is this relentless assumption in our culture that we must do something when we have inner turmoil. We must struggle with it, fix it, control it, exert brute force willpower over it, remain positive. What we really need to do, though, is what is most simple and obvious: nothing. That is, to just welcome these experiences, breathe into them, and learn their contours without racing for the exits.”

(A big thank you to Jessica and Catherine for sharing their stories and to Catherine for her lovely photo!)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Simply loved this article. Thanks Janet and Jessica. The most powerful sentence I found on this page is this:

    Yeah, you’re feeling afraid. It’s okay to be afraid, that feeling won’t hurt you. Being afraid is a feeling like sadness is a feeling, it will come and go. You’re safe, and it’s okay to be afraid.

  2. Trio of Lions says:

    This article couldn’t have arrived in my inbox at a more perfect time. Thank you for sharing these insights and for all who share their personal parenting experiences! It is so very helpful to know that other parents go through similar challenges, and learn what has helped them navigate in a healthy way.

    Thank you, Janet! I am halfway through reading “Elevating Child Care” and have already found it to be helpful. I am implementing as often as I can while learning how to do so appropriately. I plan on reading “No Bad Kids” as my child has now entered his toddler era. 🙂

  3. This reminds me of my daughter when she says she doesn’t like her brother. I let her know that it’s okay to feel that way sometimes, and it ends up calming her instead of playing into the drama. Actually Janet I would love to hear your perspective on fostering good sibling relationships. I find it hard to navigate the dynamics of my two toddlers, especially because I grew up with a sibling much older than me. Thanks for all that you do!

  4. Hi Janet, I’m a playgroup volunteer and have recently found RIE. I was wondering what a mindful transition from pram/stroller to play (on arrival) and especially from play to pram (on leaving) mirrors nappy changing? Now I know about RIE it seems strange to see mums scoop up their babies with nothing more than ‘its time to go’. Do you talk baby through, e.g. I’m putting the straps over your arms, can you help me? etc. Would love to know your thoughts. 🙂

  5. This article is great. We have struggled with sleep all of my 3.5 yr olds life. My husband or I now take turn sleeping in the guest room across the hall from our 3.5 yr old son. It’s the only way he will stay in bed and sleep. I will try these things in hopes that mom and dad can get back into our own bed together. But how do you physically keep a child in their room. We switched the lock around on his door per suggestions from friends. But I don’t think locking g him in his room is a good idea. It does t feel very loving. And suggestions on how to keep him in his room, at bed time, throughout the night, and early morning? We have a light that turns green when he can come out but now that he’s older he just ignores it. And then my husband starts taking privileges the one show a day he is allowed to watch. Any insight would be so appreciated. Thank you for all your wisdom.

    1. I was glad to find this and the comments. I’d like to know how you responded to Sonja.

      THanks, Janet, for your insight.

    2. Sonja did you ever get an answer on this one? We are in the same boat…

      1. Curious on the answer also 🙂

    3. I would also be interested in this question. I have a 2 year old who refuses to stay in bed at bedtime and naptime. I have tried the “1000” walks back (more like a million) and it doesn’t work. Bedtime and naptime can take hours!!!

  6. You have changed the future for the better JL.

    Our sons are lucky we stumbled across you.

    Thank you so very much.

  7. This article is so helpful. My almost 3 year old has seemed to develop strong fears recently around strangers – adults, children, babies. It doesn’t matter who or where or what size, if she doesnt know them she doesn’t trust them. Her anxiety is visible as she freezes, refuses to talk, gets flushed cheeks and starts fiddling with her hands in her mouth. I want to help her be confident, especially around her peers and wonder if there is anything else I can do besides acknowledging that she is fearful and nervous.
    Thank you, Janet, for all of your parenting insight.

  8. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! My 5 year old started being scared when he went to bed. It was taking us close to 2 hours to get him to sleep and sometimes that wasn’t even working . He’d end up in our bed for the night, or up 2-3 times during the night. I was exhausted. I kept telling him, “There is nothing to be afraid off” and I wish I could say that it was said in a calm manner but most of time it wasn’t. Again, I was exhausted. I knew you would have something on this subject, and it was brilliant. I was a bit skeptical, but I followed the advice to a T last night. It took 15 minutes of talking and cuddling, to get him to sleep! We talked about what we both feared and that it was ok to be scared. I left his room and he didn’t even call us back in! Not even once!!! He was up once in the middle of the night to pee, and back into his bed! I still can’t believe it. I wish I had looked up what your thoughts were on the subject weeks ago!!

      1. This has only been partially effective for my child. She’s terrified of dinosaurs coming into her room. I’m firm that she is allowed to be afraid but that dinosaurs are absolutely not coming into her room. I try to only validate the valid- the feeling, but also find that giving options like opening the door a crack gradually leads to the door being wide open. Anyway, curious on people’s opinions of this approach and if this could be in line with respectful parenting. Thank you!

  9. Hi Janet, I have been following your amazing work for years, my husband and I have both read your book and I listen regularly to your podcast. Thank you for your incredible work, it has helped so so much.

    We have had ongoing sleep issues for a while, my now 6 year old is still sleeping in bed with us, she is too scared to sleep in her bedroom, even with her younger sister who is 3 (and who is ok to sleep in her room)
    We have tried many different things over the years…. she is scared of monsters, we have talked a lot – I have asked her what they look like, (they are blue, scary) that it’s ok to be scared, shared with her that I used to have a similar fear, we left out a potion which would make them disappear, asked our pest control guy to make sure he sprayed under the bed, reassured her that real monsters don’t really exist, that ishe is strong and brave and can handle it, slept with her and then go to our bed, check in on her, and more.

    Over the years we have tried her in her room at different times with varying success, every time we try she will come running so fast into our room in the middle of the night totally terrified. She wanted to go to sleep in our bed then we would move her to her bed, the same thing would happen. She has asked us to please not move her, every night before she goes to sleep. We now have a very big bed, and for the last year or so we have gone with flow, she sleeps with us all night, my partner and I are ok with this, I know in my heart it won’t be forever, we find other ways to have our space and to have intimate and nurture our relationship. I think my worry is that this is childhood anxiety, which is something I have struggled with (and have worked very hard on) for my whole life. I’m just feeling a bit Stuck on if I need to be helping her to sleep in her own bed and face and know these fears or if they will ease as she gets older. Will the fears just change into something else? Do you have any advice on how we should be handling this? Thanks so much. Sophie and dean

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