How To Get Your Child Over A Fear Of The Dark
This week's question for Dr. B. comes from Morgan of The Little Hen House.
Yes, Morgan actually owns hens. But I gather it is less a farmgirl thing and more of an urban locavore thing. Although does that mean she kills the chickens for food? Because judging by the names she's given them— Lulu, Kitty, Gnocchi and Dagny— I'll assume she treats them more like pets than dinner. Except Gnocchi. He's obviously toast.
Morgan's question isn't about hens (good thing because Dr. B would not be able to help). It is about her three and a half year old, Emma and her fear of the dark. (I hear you, Emma— I hate the dark too!)
Dear Dr. B,
My three and a half year old insists on leaving the light on at night because she gets scared of various objects in her room like her stuffed animals. She even claims the Cat in the Hat (with "big, sharp teeth") is outside her window. She has two small lamps on her bedside tables, which make the room bright enough to see everything and I am happy to leave on. But my daughter wants both the lamps on AND her overhead light. It's brighter than daylight in there. It ends up taking her an hour to fall asleep, but she freaks when I turn out the "big" light.
Sigh…. How should I deal with her fear of of the dark so it doesn't get in the way of her sleep?
Most children develop one specific fear at some point during their childhood and fear of the dark is one of the most common in preschoolers. Fears often emerge when children develop their capacity to use their imaginations but do not yet have a firm grip on the difference between reality and fantasy. Here are some steps you can take to help your child conquer her fears:
1) Decide on a Time to Discuss It: Choose a time other than bedtime to discuss your child's fear with her since some children use nighttime fears to delay bedtime and to get some extra one on one attention.
2) Listen and Understand: Do your best to pinpoint what your child is actually afraid of. For instance, knowing that your child is afraid of scary objects or a specific character such as “Cat in the Hat” outside the window is much more valuable than knowing that she is simply afraid of the dark. You can use this information to help you determine the best strategy to overcome her fear (e.g., moving certain objects out of the room at night or not reading Cat in the Hat before bed). Do not play into your child’ fears by checking to make sure that the Cat in the Hat is not outside the window but let her check if she thinks it will help.
3) Validate Feelings, Not Fears: When your child expresses a fear, make sure she feels heard and don’t dismiss her feelings as silly or childish. Instead, restate what she shared with you in her words (e.g., “You feel scared. You are afraid of the Cat in the Hat when the lights are turned off). Explain that all people feel scared at times and it’s okay to be scared. Also, praise your child for using her words to tell you how she feels.
4) Provide Information and Reassurance: Give your child factual information about her fears in an effort to reassure her that she is safe. For instance, explain the difference between real people and characters in stories. Don’t try to talk her out of the fear, just simply state the facts. Also, remind her that Mommy and Daddy will keep her safe.
5) Discuss Coping Strategies: Explain to your child that you want to help her get over her fear of the dark and ask her what would help make her feel more safe and secure. Offer suggestions and ideas if needed. Some ideas include adopting a special safety blanket or stuffed animal, a night light, soft music, a flash light to turn on as needed, or changing the bedtime routine.
You can also teach your child to use positive self-talk when she feels afraid. Positive self-talk are helpful phrases such as “I am not afraid. There is nothing to be afraid of in my room. Its just the dark. Mommy and Daddy are home and will keep me safe.”
You can also devise a plan where you will check on her periodically throughout the night. Or you could suggest to gradually turn off one new light each night and reward her with a special treat for each light and then a big prize when all the lights are turned off for a full night.
6) Select a Strategy to Try: Discuss the ideas that you generated with your child and let her decide which one to try. If some ideas are not possible, explain why (e.g., I am concerned about leaving the big light on because it makes it hard for you to fall asleep, wastes electricity, costs money, etc.) but then remind her of other ideas you discussed that are similar.
7) Implement a Plan and Revise it if Needed: Once you decide on your plan, implement it, and see if it is successful. If it doesn’t work, discuss it the following day, determine why it didn’t work, and then try something new.
Again, fear of the dark is very common among young children and most children will grow out of fears in a few weeks or months. You may need to follow the steps outlined above or the issue may resolve itself on its own. If the fear persists beyond a few months or a developmentally appropriate age, consider talking to a professional. Either way, the best strategy is to be patient and sensitive. You want to send the message that feelings of fear are normal and parents can help. Eventually you and your child will not only conquer her fear of the dark, she will also learn some important coping and problem-solving skills to apply to different feelings and experiences.
If you have a question for Dr. B, our resident developmental psychologist, please email me at email@example.com.