How fireworks triggered a slew of novel bedtime fears and behaviours

Halloween 2020, my daughter is a little over three years old and we are still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is nearing the end of November as I write this, and we have been facing an unprecedented bedtime and nighttime challenge everyday since October 31. My daughter has expressed being scared on an almost nightly basis which has interfered with our bedtime routine and has included multiple night wakings. In this post, I discuss the factors contributing to these events, the strategies I have employed and how I plan to continue.

My daughter’s sleep state prior to Halloween 2020: ever since we sleep trained our daughter at 7 months using a supported crying method, she has never woken up during the night (apart from her last night feeding which stopped around 9 months). I mean really. I can count on one hand the number of times she has woken during the night: zero. Additionally, she is an excellent napper and still naps 1.5-2 hours a day. She loves her sleep. It is clear to me that she uses her time in her dark, rain-noise-filled room to reset and decompress from all the anxiety-inducing events of the day. She often sings and chats while going to sleep and upon waking. Even when she wakes, she does not come out of her room but waits until I come to get her. I have always been very respectful of her sleep schedule adjusting all factors of our life to accommodate everyone’s sleep – i.e. no medical appointments, no visiting or driving or staying out past naptimes or bedtimes. I think this has contributed to her excellent sleep.

Vancouver is unique in Canada (and probably most places) in that it is traditional to set off personal fireworks on Halloween night. I had a very strong childhood fear of fireworks and Halloween. They were intertwined in a very scary way. Halloween has a reputation for teenagers and young adults to behave stupidly. And by stupidly, I mean drink an excessive amount of alcohol and use explosives (fireworks). Some of the stupid teenager behaviour on Halloween includes tying fireworks to dog’s tails, throwing fireworks out the window of moving cars at random pedestrians, pushing fireworks through mail slots of front doors, and blowing off their own fingers. This, combined with people dressed in costumes that included masks (of which I already had a deep-seated fear), made Halloween a nightmare for me as a child. And frankly, I still hate it. But, upon my psychologist’s encouraging, last year (2019) I took my daughter (then 2 years old) trick-or-treating in our exceptionally safe and kid-friendly neighbourhood.

Fast forward to this year, and due to the pandemic, we did not go out trick-or-treating. But the pandemic did not stop the fireworks (and subsequent three-fold increase in calls to firefighters that night). We were able to see a few fireworks in the sky from inside our condo. I tried to point them out to my daughter, but I was never quite sure if she saw them or just heard them. That night, after our usual 5-minute bedtime routine, my daughter said she was scared for the first time. I asked what she feared, and she said fireworks. I told her they would be over soon (lies), and they were a loud noise. Fireworks are outside and will not come inside. I tried to leave but she started sobbing and I could hear the real fear in her cries. I held her as she cried and pondered what to do. I decided I would sing extra songs. I sang for a while and hoped the fireworks would die down. Eventually, I told her I had to use the bathroom and would come back again afterwards. I left and she started sobbing. I did a couple of quick jobs to get myself more comfortable for what was looking like a long night. I held her for another 45 minutes singing continuously. She finally became so exhausted that she wiggled out of my arms and I tucked her in, and she fell asleep. She woke up again in the night and started crying because she was scared. Repeat my singing and eventually I got her back to sleep.

On subsequent nights, her behaviour included saying:

  • “I’m feeling scared” on repeat.
  • “Fireworks scare me”
  • “When am I going to die?”
  • “When will you die?”
  • “When will Daddy die”
  • “I’m feeling scared of dying”
  • “Are Gammie and Grandpa okay?”
  • “Keep the door open”
  • “Shut the door, the light is bothering my eyes”
  • “I’m cold”
  • “Don’t put that blanket on me”
  • “I need to pee”
  • “I need a drink”
  • “I need cream on my chin”
  • “I need a blanket under the door [to block the light]”
  • “I need the blanket away from the door [to see the light]”
  • “Is it time to wake up?”

She also started new behaviours during bedtime, naptime and in the middle of the night:

  • Opening her door
  • Shutting her door
  • Slithering down the hallway
  • Running around her room
  • Adjusting the blanket under her door (that had been used up until this point to block the light coming into her room)

The most prevalent fear that she raised was about death and dying. Rewind to August. I found a bird that had died on our balcony and instead of disposing of it before she woke from her nap as per my original plan, I decided to show her the dead bird. I had just read about how we over-protect children from natural occurrences of death and that I should use the opportunity to explore the beauty of the bird, try to look up what type of bird it is and provide the opportunity to experience a “removed” death. After the bird, we also read the book Lifetimes: A Beautiful Way to Explain Life and Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie. At that time, she had asked about three times when Mommy, Daddy, [herself], Gammie and Grandpa would die. I used the Lifetimes wording and descriptions and kept it pretty vague but did assure her that she would live a long life (since even if she doesn’t, she wouldn’t know because she’d be dead, so no point in not providing that reassurance is my thought).

Although I had a lot of childhood fears, I never had an explicit fear of death. I feared being murdered or bad guys murdering/attacking my family, but it was the attack that I feared, not the death outcome. I feared floods and fires (and I guess the aftermath of potentially not escaping and dying), but I never thought of death in an isolated situation as something fearful so when my daughter expressed that fear almost exclusively, I did not know what to say! Most articles that describe children’s bedtime fears mention the dark or monsters; death doesn’t get a mention in most discussions of toddler/preschooler fears. Even adults fear death. It is such an existential fear and difficult to discuss without possibly making the fear worse. She does not know what death really is, so it is unclear what she actually fears. The problem I found is that if I ask her what she fears, she says, “you [Mommy] tell me”. But I do not want to put additional thoughts or ideas into her mind. For example, if I talk about death as something like sleeping peacefully, then she may become scared that she will die when she sleeps and never wake up! I have discovered that it is difficult to discuss death with a 3-year-old without making the fear worse or presenting new fearful concepts.

Back in the present, I decided that I was not going to do any kind of ignoring strategies for her night wakings as I think these methods do not address the root problem and imply that being scared is a bad behaviour to be extinguished. I also think it would be terrible if someone I cared about left me alone with my fears when they could have offered comfort! So, I tried a bunch of strategies to help my daughter cope, including:

  1. Focus on the next point of connection: “I’ll see you in the morning for breakfast. We will have yummy strawberries.” (From Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s pandemic talk.)
  2. Distract her with pleasant thoughts, “You love going on big adventures. You will think about swinging, biking and going down the slide. Weeeeee. That’s so much fun.”
  3. Sooth with singing.
  4. Sooth and distract by singing songs that she could also sing
  5. Sooth by holding/rocking/snuggling
  6. Read the book The Invisible String by Patrice Karst and describe the connection of love between our hearts even when we are in different rooms.
  7. Assure her that no one (that she mentioned) will die soon, and we will all live a long life. I know this goes against most recommendations about fears. You should not reassure something that is not true. But I have yet to read about recommendations for discussing death with a behaviourally inhibited 3-year-old! Although I would try to get into more nuance with an older child, I decided that at bedtime and in the middle of the night I am going to lie a little bit since it is highly unlikely that any of my daughter’s immediate family are going to die soon. When I read the Lifetimes book, there is discussion of short and long lifetimes so my daughter is not completely shielded from that idea, but I decided that 4 am is not the time to dwell on specifics!
  8. I told her it was my job as her Special Big Person to hold on to her “Scared” (I got this idea from Jennifer Lapointe’s book Discipline Without Damage). I told her to give me her Scared and I would take it away. She gave it to me with her hand and then I ate it with a munching sound. My husband thought this would be even more scary but I came up with eating thing at 2 am. In hindsight, I might not do the eating thing, but in the end, my daughter seemed to really like this strategy and has since asked me to, “eat my Scared”.
  9. Fill her head with kisses (Dr. Jennifer Lapointe).
  10. Fill her Lovey with kisses and tell her Lovey to give those kisses to my daughter in the night.
  11. My husband told her that her animal buddies were her protectors in the night (he read about that strategy online). Unfortunately, our daughter replied, “they [buddies] are not real.” So, that one kind of fizzled out!

I think all the above strategies helped somewhat, but the most consistently helpful methods in order were: singing (strategies 3 and 4), filling her and her Lovey with kisses (strategies 9 and 10) and “eating her Scared” (strategy 8). Since trying these strategies, my mom sent me this article about childhood fears of death from Psychology Today. There is no research evidence explicitly cited so it seems to be just an opinion piece, but it validated me assuring my daughter that we would all live long lives, despite not actually knowing if that is true [more info from this article]!

Although the fireworks seemed to trigger this period of nighttime fearfulness, there are a few other factors that have contributed to this perfect storm:

  1. I have had new health issues over the past 3 months that have made me less active and just plain “different” from before.
  2. Just prior to Halloween, I had started talking to my daughter about not wearing her diaper to sleep anymore and in the middle of November, I wrote a story to help transition her from diapers to undies. So, although I didn’t try to push the situation after the fears started, she ended up using the potty while she was having all these fearful night wakings. Eventually, some of the fearful night wakings transitioned to just potty wake-ups that still required tucking back in to bed.
  3. Her aunt broke her ankle in the summer and that affected our usual schedule.
  4. Her grandpa had a knee replacement surgery the day before Halloween and we were not able to see Gammie and Grandpa as he recovered.
  5. Just after Halloween, new health orders came in restricting our bubble (which had included Gammie and Grandpa) to household members, which significantly altered our schedule.
Update (Dec 12, 2020)

We have now had two sequential nights without night wakings! It has been amazing. Once all the night wakings had transitioned to potty wake-ups without fear, I talked to my daughter about using the potty and going back to her bed and under her covers to stay warm and that she did not need to call me. I had little hope that this would work, but lo and behold, she did it! I have no idea if she is getting up at night and tucking herself back in or if she is sleeping all the way through. It is too early to say that this is our new nighttime but it sure is nice to have this reprieve.

An additional strategy I recently instigated was to do a double tuck-in at bedtime. I do my usual singing routine and first tuck-in, then promise to come back for a second tuck-in and last song after I do my bedtime jobs. This seems to work well in keeping her in her room and letting me get my own tasks done while giving her the security that I am not leaving her alone at night. There have been two instances in which she has fallen asleep prior to the second tuck-in, but other than that she is awake and happy to hear her last song and expresses no fears or concerns before falling asleep on her own.

Childhood fear of Death and Worry Time

One of the strategies mentioned in this article is a 10-minute Worry Time during the day where the child is encouraged to worry for 10 minutes and then stop. I have heard of this strategy as an adult and had a counsellor recommend it with the addition of an elastic band on my wrist that I would snap after the 10 minutes to “snap” out of the worry state. However, I did not find the technique particularly useful. It is incredibly hard to stop your mind from worrying once it starts. I tried it for a few days but found the worry (in my case it was also a very specific worry, not generalized) kept popping into my head and it was incredibly difficult (if not impossible) to stop the worry with this technique.

The technique reminds me of the concept of writing down your thoughts before bedtime, so your brain does not keep thinking about them. Both my dad and I have used this technique successfully for mundane thoughts that keep you awake, “I don’t want to forget milk on the grocery list.”, “I need to set up a meeting with Bob tomorrow”. I have noticed that if I take the time to get out of bed and write down the thought, my brain relaxes and stops thinking about it. However, I have not had the same success with worrying/anxious thoughts. Writing them down does not seem to stop them from making my brain “buzz”. Since I have only experienced using this technique as an adult, I am not sure how much easier/more difficult it would be for a 3-year-old to successfully offload worries during a Worry Time such that those worries would not come back again in the night. I feel like this technique has the potential to make the situation worse by creating more worry dwelling time; I am hesitant to start it without good evidence that it will be helpful and not hurtful. For me, the jury is still out on Worry Time.

Ok, I slipped this post in here because my life revolved around these night wakings for the past month, but I still plan to discuss some of the brave stories in my next post.