There are many tricks to help children cope with the dark and their fears, but there is always some deep seated reason that they are afraid. When my second child was young, he suffered terribly from night terrors. He was afraid to go to bed and would wake up screaming in the middle of the night. His father and I tried everything. We talked to him about it. We did a sweep of his room. We burned sage and his dad even did a Native American inspired dance with a rattle, chanting as he went. We hung dream-catchers and had night lights. Nothing helped. No one was getting much sleep, and we were burning out fast.
I worked at The Albany Free School at the time, and we were hosting parent nights once a month at the school. A speaker would come each month to talk about parenting issues. One month we invited David Nevin, a prominent local child psychologist. After his presentation, we were invited to ask questions. My hand shot right up, and I asked about these nightmares. He explained that children are often afraid because they don't have clear and consistent limits. He asked about our rules at home. Then he asked if we both had the same rules and consequences and if we always followed through. Honestly, we both were pretty bad about limit setting at the time. I had come from a background of abuse with very strict rules and no room for me to be myself or even figure out who I was. I was determined not to repeat that pattern and was too lenient. My husband had come from an atmosphere of severe neglect, left to his own devices at a very early age and had no idea what limits were or how to go about enforcing them.
After that night, we had a meeting and decided on some simple rules with consequences attached. It was important that we both agreed on them because we both needed to enforce them. It wasn't easy at first but did get easier over time. And it worked. It was like a miracle. I remember being amazed at how quickly things changed. The theory behind this is that children depend on us to keep them safe. When we are not setting clear limits, they feel unsafe. When we are not consistent and make exceptions, they're not sure they can trust us. If we are always changing the rules or negating them, they feel crazy. I don't know why I didn't get that on my own.
During my childhood, the rules constantly changed. Sometimes it was okay to finish a game and come home a few minutes after being called in. Other times, it was a grave offense, punishable by a leather belt. Sometimes my parents made up a rule on the spot with no previous warning and, once again, this new broken rule called for a belt. I grew up afraid and distrusting of my parents. Not wanting to do that to my own children, I made them feel unsafe in other ways. Even now, it's not always easy, but I've learned that I don't have to be cruel to maintain some order. It's in my expectations, my posture, the look on my face and my tone of voice. Because I love children, I demand good behavior from them, often without having to say a word. It is a loving and compassionate thing to teach them limits. It will also help them if they become parents themselves.