When a child is afraid, all a parent wants to do is take that fear away, but as most parents know it’s not always so easy. Fear isn’t rational in anyone, no less a child, and certainly not when it is a fear of the unknown, like death or the dark. Reasoning with a child who is facing a fear of the dark that there is “nothing to be afraid of” can only go so far. While it is certainly worthwhile to explain to a child that there is nothing in the room to fear, rarely does this sort of logic and rationality completely eradicate an experience that, by its very nature, is founded on the ever-irrational and illogical realm of emotions.
1. Compassion always.
The limits of rational comforting notwithstanding, there is still something to be gained by talking openly with your child about his feelings. Simply asking your child to discuss his fears with you can go a long way towards assuaging those fears. Your child will usually welcome the opportunity to discuss her perception of reality with you—his protector—who in turn provides acceptance and understanding. In broaching the subject of your child’s fear, take extreme care to remain sensitive to the child’s experience of the dark and to avoid ridiculing her or impassively dismissing his feelings. Belittling a child for being afraid or showing frustration with repeated outbursts of fear will only exacerbate the negative associations the child already has with the experience.
2. Try to see it from your child’s perspective…
Study the room from your child’s perspective to identify any objects that may appear threatening in the dark and then make the necessary adjustments accordingly. Installing a nightlight in the room or in a visible part of the hallway outside the door may help comfort your child at night, as can giving your child a sense of control over his environment by placing a lamp on a bedside table that he may turn on or off on his own. And it doesn’t hurt to ask your child if there are any measures he can think of for handling the fear. A solution could be as simple as permission to bring a comforting toy or other belonging to bed with him (so long as it isn’t physically dangerous to do so, of course.)
3. …but do not play along with your child’s fears.
It is crucial that in discussing your child’s fears, you avoid giving him the impression that you share those fears. Checking under the bed or looking in the closet for monsters, for example, may suggest that you genuinely think there is a possibility that something terrifying may be lurking nearby. The child already believes you’re invincible; otherwise the monsters would also be under your bed or in your closet. The child needs to believe you understand his fears, not to see you buy into the reality of the fears. If he is convinced that there is something under the bed or in the closet, and your assurance that there can’t be anything there is to no avail, you might allow him to look, with you present, in order to convince himself of this truth. Invite him, in other words, to share your invincibility. But don’t pretend that the possibility of such a thing as monsters under the bed might even exist or you set yourself up for the possibility of playacting nightly an unhelpful bedtime ritual.
4. Take your child on a security tour of the house.
What may also help allay your child’s fears is becoming acquainted with the security systems installed in your home to protect against real dangers, rather than imagined ones. You might show your child the deadbolt locks on the doors to the outside (though don’t actually lock them at night as it could be a fire hazard) or any alarm systems you may have installed.
5. Employ a system of rewards for encouraging time spent alone in the dark.
You can implement a program of rewarding your child for taking even small steps towards confronting his fears, for example, rewarding him for simply remaining quietly in bed and not jumping out (or acting out) the moment you’re done tucking him in. In a 1984 University of Mississippi study following six children with a fear of the dark over a period of one year, one of the approaches used was to give the child a reward each morning when, without any difficulties, he went to bed, fell asleep, and stayed in bed throughout the night in a progressively dimmer room. Rewards included verbal praise, physical affection (hugs), treats, toys, or tokens. Within two weeks after beginning treatments such as this one, all six subjects in the University of Mississippi study were able to sleep straight through the night with the lighting in the room set at standard illumination for sleeping or lower.
6. Be aware of whether a more serious issue may be present that might merit a doctor’s intervention.
This fear of the dark, however, may on the surface seem just that. But parents need to remain alert to the possibility this fear actually masks a deeper emotional issue, such as a fear of death (that if they fall asleep, they may not wake back up), a fear of abandonment (that the parent may not be there when the child awakens), separation anxiety, or a craving for the loving, affectionate sort of attention that a parent often shows when coming back into the room to comfort a child in the throes of this kind of anxiety. If you find any of these the case with your child, discuss these larger issues with her openly.
Just remember, first and foremost, demonstrate compassion toward your child always. A solution to your child’s fear of the dark begins with your acceptance that his feelings are genuine and quite real, even if the perceived danger is not. From that vantage point, all sorts of healing is possible.
Dr. Tom Jackson is a psychiatrist who has specialized in the treatment of sleep disorders and anxiety for the past thirty years. His unique therapeutic audio programs originate in his background as a recording engineer, therapist, musician, poet and environmental biologist. He is currently Medical Director of a public mental health clinic and in private practice. He treats both children and adults utilizing traditional and alternative modalities alike. He graduated from Northwestern University Medical School and did his internship and psychiatric residency training at the University of California, Irvine. For more information, visit Website www.3DAudioMagic.com and www.ThomasJacksonMD.com