Fear of the Dark: Helping your Child Adjust

Why is my child afraid of the dark?

Fear of the dark in children is one of the most common issues parents face in raising young children. So why does anxiety go up when the lights go down? Some children start out well, settling in their cots as babies and toddlers. Later on as they approach the pre-school years, some children seem to regress and fear of the dark becomes a very real issue for them. Some children are placated by the presence of a comforter such as blanket or toy, others may need a parent present while they drift off to sleep and more still make wake through the night, requiring a parent present in order to go back to sleep and stay asleep. This cycle may repeat throughout the night which is why for some families, it can be a very challenging experience.

As parents and adults, we know that there is nothing lurking in the dark recesses of our bedroom waiting to frighten the life out of us but children process reality very differently to the way that we do. It can be very difficult to pinpoint the origin of the fear. It may have been something seen on TV, a comment made by another child or adult, a bad dream that they are unable to distinguish from reality or in other cases, significant emotional events may have caused their fear of the dark.

Initial fears

Fear is a normal emotion, it is part of our genetic make-up and ensures that we have the survival skills necessary to keep us alive in a fight or flight situation. Young children obviously do not have the knowledge that we have as adults so their fear translates literally into whatever they make of it. Perhaps your child has tried something new, it was a little scary and they play over that scenario when they are at rest before going off to sleep. Children are learning and having these next experiences every day, this is a normal part of development. How you handle their reactions to fear can have an impact on how they deal with that fear as they grow older.

Children also have a wonderful sense of imagination. This usually translates into play, creative activities, games and learning. Unfortunately their imagination has little or no filter at such a young age. Ideas or images flood their minds and some are a little scary. They may believe that a TV show, a story book or a picture they’ve seen is real. It can be a challenge to help your child to understand that the reality is different from the perception.

Where do the fears come from and why?

At around the age of two to four years old, children’s imaginations are running wild. They are actively processing all of their daily experiences and encounters, some a lovely and wonderful, others may have been a little scary or new. As discussed, children are not yet able at this age to distinguish between reality and imagination. It is no wonder that a dark room could fill a child with all sorts of fears or uncertainties.

Children are not filled with distraction at night, there are no planned activities or time spent with parents, carers or other adults, the night has come and they are in their beds in a darkened room with only their little imaginations to keep them company. This means that as they begin to process their experiences from the day, those that are a little uncertain may quickly become scary at the same time. Being afraid of the dark can affect all children. Those who seem well adjusted during the waking hours may seem inexplicably afraid at night. Others may suddenly develop a fear of the dark for no apparent reason nor can they explain or justify the fear. With time and your positive support, these fears will subside.

TV, gaming consoles and other interactive devices and books are huge offenders when it comes to looking at what influences a child’s imagination. Often, what seems perfectly harmless to an adult or older child, may in fact be pretty scary to a young child. Particularly if they are not aware of the fact that the scenario is not real.

Some images or scenes can provoke further imagination and without some form of control, we are then unable to manage how our children filter those images or scenes into their own world. Some parents, without meaning to do so, can create a situation where a child may become scared of the dark. Innocent comments about the boogie man or fantasy characters who keep watch over children while they sleep, may to a child, be a scary prospect. This form of well-meaning discipline can often cause more problems than it solves. The fear of the dark is a difficult thing to overcome for a child so taking care not to add to their fears is important from a parenting perspective, however well-intended.

Tackling the issue

If you are concerned about your child’s fear and you feel that it is having a significant impact on your child’s life or your family life, sleep deprivation or long winded bedtimes or periods of night waking, you may wish to try and tackle the issue head on.

Communication is key here. Talking to your child about what makes them worried, draw pictures and demystify the fear as much as possible. Be understanding when your child explains their fear to you, don’t dismiss it as silly or impossible, to your child the fear is very real, the last thing they need on top of fear is guilt or shame for being afraid.

Once you have decided that there is an issue worth addressing, consider some of the following suggestions. Listen to your child, discuss the issues at hand and together, think of ways that you can bring the monsters out of the dark and into the fun filled light of day.

Remain composed and relaxed, talk to your child about the fear they are facing and ensure that you do not make it worse by adding any incomprehensible concepts or exaggerations. Reassure your child that they are safe, not only when you are there or in their own home but at all times. By talking about fear, naming it and allowing your child to feel normal rather than different, you’ll already begin to remove some of the uncertainty your child experiences when their fears creep in.

Don’t get upset or angry with your child. Their fear may then become compounded and much bigger than it already is. It can be very frustrating to have a child who fights sleep because of fear, needing you there when you could be having your own dinner or relaxing before going off to bed yourself. Think back to a time when you may have experienced similar fears, how did you feel and what would have made it OK at the time? Your child is quite likely to be experiencing the same feelings. They need you and it is really for a very short time in their lives. Once they have the ability to understand the concept of fantasy and reality, they will be better equipped, with your support, to handle those fears and rationalise them.

If you have older children who may tease of antagonise your younger child, make sure that they understand how your younger child is feeling and that the fear to them, is very real. If everyone supports and communicates about the fears your child is experiencing, then there is a far better chance that your child will outgrow their fear of the dark sooner rather than later.

Support your child

It is very common for children to regress at night, even as they get older. It is important to be there for reassurance and to remind your child of your discussions earlier in the day. Build on that just before bedtime so that your child is reminded of the fact that their fear is justified but should not be a concern at bedtime.

Give your child the boost they needs by empowering them with knowledge and support. By giving your child the tools to tackle their fears through discussion and your presence, they will soon build on their sense of self-esteem and ability to cope. If your child says they need you, go to them, reassure them and let them know that you will return shortly. Continue to do so as your child learns that you will always return and that you have not abandoned them to their fears.

As your child becomes more confident, ask them to decide how soon you should return, is that in 2 minutes, or 10 minutes and build on that until your child is confident enough to nod off to sleep without your presence. Your child may wish to have an additional comforter at night such as a special teddy, doll or blanket. This is fine and if your child takes comfort from such items, then you should not discourage this until they are older.

Sleepovers may need to be put on hold. If your child regularly goes to a grandparent or other close care provider overnight and is also afraid of the dark while there, it may be worthwhile working on helping your child to confront and overcome their fears before they go into another environment overnight, away from the home. If your child is creeping into bed with you at night, it is still very important to maintain the boundaries of them having their own bed to sleep in.

Resist the urge to allow your child to sleep with you as this will then create an additional issue when the time comes and you no longer want them sleeping in bed with you. Focus on helping your child to overcome their fear even if that means you’re up at night, returning them to their own beds, reassuring them and reminding them of your daytime discussion as you do. It may take a while but your child will eventually realise that there is no point in trying to climb into your bed as they will only be returned to their own room.

If you have older children, they are welcome to be included in the whole idea and discussion around not being afraid of the dark but it is not your older child’s job to care for the younger child at night or at bedtime. That is the job of the parent or carer and it is important that you only ask your older child to support your encouragement, not take on the responsibility of parenting your child.

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