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The Informed Parent

Fear Of The Dark

by Sandra Smith, Ph.D.
Published on Jul. 16, 2001

“How can I help my child get over being afraid of the dark?” lamented one frustrated mom. “She cries and worries tremendously when nighttime comes. Of course, the fact that I am going through a separation from her father must definitely be a contributing factor. I just want to be able to help her with this.”

Fear of the dark is probably one of the most exhausting issues parents face. This child deserves to be comforted and helped through the fear. Unfortunately, this need usually tends to occur when mom has the least patience—at the end of a long day.

Fear of the dark tends to wax and wane at different ages, and through various stages of development and experience. Certainly, major events such as parental separation may be expected to waken, or reawaken, the very factors that keep children too mindful or worried to fall off peacefully to sleep.

This child’s fears are real. She needs plenty of nurturing support, coupled with mom’s own confident, positive assurance that she will be able to manage the fears she is experiencing. On the other hand, too much reassurance, or coddling, may convince the child that she has something to fear, and may create more of the same fearful behavior.

Generally a child needs to cope with nighttime fears in small steps. It takes time. The following guidelines will hopefully guide parents through this difficult time.

  1. Turn on, or install, a nightlight or other dim light in your child’s room. Help her to identify the fear out loud, cuddle or hold her, listen and demonstrate understanding. Reassure your child but do not try to eliminate of “fix” the fear for her. Instead of saying “You’re not really afraid of the dark,” for instance, you might say, “Jessie, you are afraid of the dark. You are safe.” Or, “Sometimes the dark does seem scary. But you are safe.” This is the first step.
  2. Next, ask how you can help. Say, “How can I help you?” Verbally acknowledge what your child wants, and then tell her what you are able and willing to do. Set appropriate limits. Firmly and kindly follow through. You might say, “Jessie, I know you want me to stay with you. I will stay with you for 5 or 10 minutes. Then I need to leave. Your new night light is on and you are safe." LIMIT THE TALK. USE ACTION WITH FEW WORDS. Try not to vary the words much from night to night, which reassures the child. Allow her to take a favorite stuffed animal or doll to bed. Say, “Jessie, you watch over your puppy, and he will watch over you.”
  3. Give more time to your child’s bedtime rituals, including those that revolve around her fears about the dark. Take some time to teach her how to control her fears. At bedtime, you might sit with her and develop a ritual by which she identifies what scared her in the room. Find out what she is afraid of. With a dim light or a flashlight, illuminate what she mentions and attempt to remedy it to whatever degree possible. If the window worries her, say, “The windows worry you. We are going to install new locks on them so you’ll feel more secure. We’ve also installed this new dimmer light so you can get a little more light when you need it. You worry about the open closet door, so we’ll make sure it is shut each night. You worry that the things on the floor look like monsters, so we’ll make sure we put everything away before you go to bed.” In my practice, I am constantly amazed at the items children fixate on at night. Once these are identified, it becomes much simpler to offer realistic reassurance, e.g., “Remember, we have those heavy-duty locks on the windows and doors, so we are very safe at night.”
  4. The most disconcerting factor of all to parents is the fact that, once fearful, children want to leave their room for the safety of their parent’s bed. To positively reinforce the child’s increasing ability to master her fears of the dark, plot her successes on a chart or calendar. Offer a reward, e.g., “After you manage to stay in your own bed for five nights in a row, we’ll get you your own flashlight.” Be encouraging. If she makes it for four nights and fails on the fifth, say, “You’re doing great! You made it four nights in a row. You’ll find it gets easier and easier. Tomorrow is a new night. You can still earn that new flashlight by next Saturday!”
  5. If your child is extremely apprehensive, as might well be the case with a new separation, leave a sleeping bag next to your bed. Say, “If you feel afraid and you can’t sleep, come in quietly and crawl in this bag. Don’t wake me up.” This accomplishes two goals: it provides the truly fearful child with an opportunity to handle the fear on her own, but with the reassurance of a parent nearby; and it discourages attention-getting behavior (the parent is not involved).
  6. Finally, comment and affirm your child’s positive successes and efforts. Say, “You are behaving very bravely. It takes time to overcome fear of the dark. I see all the effort you are making. You will do it, I know you will.” This has the positive, extra benefit of teaching your child positive self-talk. For young children such as your daughter, it is often making up words to a familiar tune, e.g., “I am brave. I am safe. I am very brave and safe.”

Some Final “Tips”

Try to keep your child on as regular a schedule as possible. Overtired children get wound up and fears escalate. Be available. While children are going through major transitions, different babysitters and inconsistent schedules can make her feel insecure and more fearful.

Try having some fun in the dark! Turn out all the lights and eat dinner by candle or firelight. Build a tent or tunnel in the living room; turn out all the lights and crawl around.

Read children’s books together. Preview them first for their appropriateness for your particular child. Some recommendations:

BEDTIME FOR FRANCES by Russell Hoban (New York: Harper Collins, 1960)

ANNA IN CHARGE by Yoriko Tsutsui (New York: Viking, 1989)

THERE’S SOMETHING IN MY ATTIC by Mercer Meyer (New York: Dial Books,

1988)

SHEILA RAE, THE BRAVE by Kevin Henkes (New York: Greenwillow, 1988)




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