How to Help Kids Overcome the Fear of a Monster Under the Bed

The best strategies for calming a child's nighttime fears

Every night, kids across the globe worry that there’s a monster hiding under the bed. It’s a common fear that most adults can relate to—the fear of monsters isn’t new. It’s a fear that pre-dates video games and social media and has persisted throughout the generations.

If you have a child who is convinced that once the lights go out, there’s a hairy monster who is going to crawl out from under the bed and ‘get him,’ you’re not alone. But, it can be tough to know how to calm your child’s anxiety and convince him that he can sleep in his bed alone without being attacked by a monster that lives under the bed.

Overcoming fear of monsters under the bed
Illustration by JR Bee, Verywell.

The Fear of Monsters

The fear of darkness, especially of being left alone in the dark, is one of the biggest fears kids experience.

A 2015 study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology suggests that the fear isn’t necessarily of the dark, but is more of a fear of nighttime.

Some researchers suspect this is evolutionary. Nighttime is when people may be most vulnerable to predators. Children may have learned to cry as a way to get adult attention and stay safer from nighttime danger. 

So it’s likely that your child’s fear of nighttime and darkness is hardwired. And the anxiety she naturally experiences at bedtime is likely to fuel her imagination—which might be why she’s convinced that the second you leave her alone, a monster is hiding under the bed.

It’s likely that popular culture plays a role in fostering kids’ imaginations about monsters. There are always books, movies, and cartoons about strange looking creatures.

So as frustrating as it can be to have to return your child to bed half a dozen times because she insists there’s a monster under the bed, it can be helpful to gain a better understanding of age-appropriate fears so you can best decide how to intervene.

Age Appropriate Fears

Childhood fears often aren’t rational. But that doesn’t mean those fears aren’t real. Here’s what to expect from your child through the ages:

  • Toddlers – Children between 2 and 3 may be afraid of anything they don’t understand. Whenever they see something that doesn’t seem quite right—like Grandma wearing a bandage or a plate with a crack in it—they may begin to cry.
  • Preschoolers Between the ages of 3 and 5, children tend to fear imaginary dangers, like the fear that a monster lives under the bed. They have trouble separating reality from fantasy and they have vivid imaginations that fuel their fear.
  • School-aged children Fears often become more reality-based during the school years. A child may be scared of thunderstorms, barking dogs, or fires. They may also worry about their parents’ health and their own safety and they may still experience some sleepover anxiety. As their understanding of the world grows, irrational fears about monsters living under the bed should slowly begin to disappear.

How to Help Your Child

It’s important to show empathy—even when you’re feeling frustrated because your child cries out repeatedly or gets out of bed a dozen times every night. Here are some strategies that can help fears about monsters lurking under the bed (or in the closet):

  • Validate your child’s feelings. Rather than saying, “Don’t be scared,” say, “I know you feel really afraid right now.” This sends a message that says it’s OK to feel scared. Don’t accuse your child of being overly dramatic or trying to get attention.
  • Use dramatic play. Encourage your child to use a dollhouse, stuffed animals, or other toys to show you how someone might deal with the fear of monsters under the bed in a healthy way. He may depict a brave boy who scares the monsters away or a girl who learns how to sing herself to sleep so she isn’t afraid. Dramatic play can help your child develop his own creative solutions.
  • Encourage artwork. Let your child draw pictures of monsters or paint a picture of how she feels when she tries to go to sleep. Talking about it can help her feel safer.
  • Look under the bed. Before you shut off the lights at night, ask your child if he wants to look under the bed together. Use a flashlight and look around under there—if he wants to do so. That can help him confront his fears head-on.
  • Practice being in the dark together. If your child is afraid of the dark, doing something fun in the when the lights are out can help him see that darkness isn’t so scary. You might read books at bedtime with only a flashlight or tell him stories in the dark before he falls asleep.
  • Give your child some control. Ask your child what could help him feel brave and be willing to go along with his suggestions if they’re within reason. Whether he says sleeping with his lion stuffed animal helps him feel better or he says he has to wear his superhero pajamas, give him a bit of control and you might find he feels better.
  • Use a night light but do so cautiously. Light will interfere with your child’s circadian rhythms and keep him awake longer. So if you opt for a night light, make sure it’s dim and place it somewhere that it won’t be shining in his face while he’s trying to sleep.
  • Address behavior problems. If your child gets out of bed repeatedly, return her to her bed. Or, if she argues about bedtime, don’t allow her arguments to delay bed. Show empathy for your child, but address bedtime behavior problems consistently.
  • Monitor your child’s media use. Restrict your child’s access to media that includes violence or anything that may be scary. Be especially mindful of anything your child may be consuming just before bed. Don’t read stories that involve monsters or scary animals before he goes to sleep.
  • Create a calming bedtime routine. Taking a bath, reading a few books, and snuggling with Mom or Dad before bed are just a few things you might want to incorporate into your child’s bedtime routine. A calming bedtime routine can help your child fall asleep faster—which means less time to worry about monsters under the bed.
  • Read books about overcoming the fear of the dark. A 2015 study found that reading books about overcoming fears of the dark reduced nighttime fears in children over the course of several weeks. While there are many books available, children in the study specifically benefited from reading and doing the exercises in Uncle Lightfoot, Flip That Switch: Overcoming the Fear of the Dark.

If your older child seems to still believe that it’s possible a hungry lion might magically appear under the under the bed or in the closet, remind her that her imagination may play tricks on her—especially if she’s already feeling anxious at night.

Older kids can benefit from learning healthy coping strategies, like breathing techniques or positive self-talk as well. Then, they can calm their minds and their bodies when their imaginations run wild.

What to Avoid

These parenting strategies may backfire in the end and cause your child’s fears to become worse:

  • Teasing your child. Making fun of your child’s fears or embarrassing her may backfire. Many adult fears and phobias aren’t necessarily based on fact either—like the fear of flying in an airplane or the fear of public speaking. So honor your child’s feelings by treating her with respect.
  • Arguing your logic. Don’t waste your energy trying to convince your child that monsters under the bed are illogical—especially if you’ve got a toddler or preschooler. Your logic won’t work.
  • Minimizing your child’s feelings. Saying, “Quit being such a sissy,” or “It’s not a big deal,” is harmful. Instead, acknowledge that your child’s fear is a big deal to her and that you understand what it’s like to feel afraid.
  • Scaring your child. It’s important for kids to face their fears gradually. Don’t do anything drastic to help your child overcome her fears. Locking her in her room when she’s terrified or allowing her to watch scary movies will reinforce her fears.

When to Seek Professional Help

In most cases, the fear of monsters under the bed slowly goes away as a child matures. That doesn’t mean the fear of the dark will go away completely, however. It’s normal for older kids to still be a bit wary of the dark.

If your child’s fears seem to interfere with his daily life, you may want to consider professional help.

If he’s having trouble sleeping because he’s scared, it may affect his behavior the next day. Or, if his fears of monsters are so big that he often talks about them during the day or all of his play revolves around monsters under the bed, talk to your pediatrician.

The pediatrician may offer some strategies that can improve your child’s sleep, reduce his fear, or address bedtime behavior problems. If the pediatrician thinks your child may have anxiety or a phobia, your child may be referred to a mental health professional.

Talk therapy may teach your child skills to reduce anxiety. You may be invited to be involved in your child’s treatment so you can help support your child’s efforts and assist in reducing her fears.

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