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Senior Correspondent

Q: About six months ago, our 4-year-old daughter began complaining of being afraid to be alone at bedtime. Upon questioning, she told us she was afraid of monsters in her closet and under her bed. We were unable to convince her otherwise. In fact, the more we talked to her, the more her fears grew to the point of becoming nearly hysterical at bedtime. As a result, I began staying with her until she fell asleep. The problem is that she wants to talk and doesn't end up falling asleep until 10 or 11 o'clock.

I should mention, she gives us no other problems and is a happy little girl at preschool. Does this indicate some deep-seated insecurity, or is she, as a therapist friend of mine suggested, just being manipulative? In any case, your advice would be appreciated.

A: I have no way of knowing your daughter's emotional status, but a "deep-seated insecurity" is unlikely given that she functions well except at bedtime. I doubt she's being manipulative either. Children this age really don't possess the level of cunning and social intelligence necessary to purposefully manipulating people. It may seem at times as if they are, but appearance — in this case, your daughter appears to have "manipulated" you into staying with her at bedtime — and actuality are two different things.

The sudden advent of random fears, especially various bedtime fears, is fairly common in children this age. Most of the kids in question are otherwise well-adjusted, as seems the case with your daughter.

Paradoxically, and as you've already discovered, the more parents try to talk a child out of being afraid of something unreal like monsters in the closet, the worse the fear becomes. In a preschooler, the power of the irrational in combination with that of imagination is stronger than the power of reason. My first recommendation, therefore, is that you abandon all such efforts. The quality of your explanations doesn't matter  your best words aren't going to work.

My second recommendation is that you continue to remain with your daughter until she falls asleep but that you impose a penalty on her for the pleasure of your company. Tell her you've learned that children who are afraid at bedtime need more sleep, meaning they need much earlier bedtimes. So, if she wants you to stay with her at bedtime, she must go to bed right after supper the following night. On that following night, stay with her if she wants you to, but remind her that her bedtime the next night will have to be right after supper because she obviously still needs more sleep. And so on.

In other words, she continues to enjoy your presence at bedtime but has to pay a price for it. My experience predicts that if you are able to pull this off without any show of frustration, it will take two to four weeks for your daughter to begin telling you not to stay with her at bedtime. Yes, you will be inconvenienced during that time, but much less inconvenienced than you might be otherwise. More than a few parents have told me horror stories of these bedtime fears not only lasting several years, but also breeding other fears and anxieties along the way.

The approach I just described has prevented many a molehill from becoming a mountain.

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