If you have a child who is afraid of the dark, how you intervene will depend on the underlying cause. Knowing the root of the fear will make your parenting intervention that much more effective.
Delay tactics. “I want a glass of water.” “I need my favorite teddy bear.” “Can you leave my door open?” “I need one more hug.” “I am afraid of the dark.” If you find that your child’s report of being afraid of the dark comes after a succession of other requests and “needs,” you may just have a staller on your hands. Make sure that you address their expressed fear with the same matter of fact response you would for the other requests. If you pay too much attention to their statement about being afraid, you could unknowingly reinforce it, leading them to play that card much earlier the following night. The best intervention for children who regularly employ delay tactics is to minimize involvement by anticipating needs before bedtime, telling them what you will not come in for and having the least desired parent (usually the father -sorry dads) provide any and all post lights-out interventions.
Separation anxiety. These children have a history of difficulty separating from attachment figures. They often cry when a parent leaves them at school or with relatives and worry about their parents’ safety when they are not with them. Children who fear separation experience this acutely when they are tired and in the quiet and dark of their own room. They then begin to associate their fear of separation with the darkness in their room and a fear of the dark is born. For these children, a regular, predictable bedtime routine, a transitional object (mom’s purse on the dresser can assure them that you are not going anywhere), and one or two scheduled check in times can help alleviate fears.
Over-exposure to media. Some children who watch t.v. or video games with violent content may seem unaffected by it while watching it, leading their parents to believe that they can handle it. Regardless of how your child responds to violence in the media, they are ill-equipped to handle it. Children lack the life experiences, emotional and brain development necessary to “file away” this type of information. This leaves them prone to developing fears and worries about a host of possible scenarios. Eliminate violent or adult content from your child’s entertainment. Don’t underestimate the impact of movie and adult t.v. show trailers that pop up during commercials. For some children, avoiding commercials all together is your best bet.
Previous trauma. Children who have experienced a traumatic event (loss of a loved one, physical or sexual abuse, etc.) are often fearful at night when their minds are free of distractions and susceptible to a flood of memories. If your child has experienced something of this nature, seek professional help.
Active imagination. These children have seen very little on t.v., know nothing of the evil in the world, yet they have elaborate fears of hippos jumping through their windows and black cats crawling out from under their beds. Even if they lived in a bubble, these children would likely be fearful. It is the way they are “wired.” Sometimes this is a reflection of their level of sensitivity (to find out if your child is highly sensitive, you can read more about it and complete an online questionnaire here). However, these children could be struggling with an underlying generalized anxiety disorder. If you suspect this to be the case, consider seeking a professional evaluation with a therapist or counselor who specializes in childhood anxiety disorders. These children can benefit from learning some coping methods and having some modifications made to their environment. They can sing a song that comforts them, use self talk (ex: “There is nothing outside my window, that is just my imagination”) keep a flashlight handy, have a closet light on (use flourescent bulbs to minimize cost), or use a white noise machine to block out ambient noises.
Regardless of the underlying cause, talk to your child about their fears and feelings about the dark. Listen without judgment or rationalizations. Regardless of how silly it may seem to you, it is likely real to them. A simple question, “How can I help?” can encourage them to find their own solutions. You may find that they know exactly what they need.
[photo credit: earl53 from morguefile.com]