Turning the lights off is usually a signal to rest and relax. Some children, however, consider it as a signal to panic. When a child is afraid of the dark, even the simple act of trying to sleep can be a stressful experience.
Fear of Dark is Common
Fear of the dark is one of the most common fears among young children, with the fear affecting kids as young as two years-old. Many researchers believe that this fear is part of our survival instincts; some of our ancestors probably did well by being alert during nightfall. But since we no longer need to worry about nocturnal beasts roaming after day, this fear no longer serves a purpose in our civilized times. The best thing to do is manage the fear, as the threat doesn’t exist.
Fear of the dark is often not because of the dark per se, but of what can be lurking in the dark that you can’t see. When kids hear strange noises as they sleep, it’s easy for them to imagine that a monster or a robber is out to get them. When they can’t make sense of the moving shadows on their walls, their mind starts going to ghosts and ghouls. It doesn’t help, of course, if they are fond of watching horror programs on TV or news stories about crimes. Children have imaginative minds; you’d be surprised with what they can fill blanks with.
Helping Your Child
One way to help a child manage fear of the dark is to simply let them sleep with the lights on. After all, there’s no harm in not turning off the lights, except perhaps to the parents’ electric bill! An alternative is to give them a nightlight, like a small lamp, or a flashlight that they can use when they don’t feel safe. When kids have the means to check out whether their fears have basis, they will feel more in control.
Most parenting experts don’t recommend checking for “monsters under the bed” or “bogeymen hiding in the closet.” Doing so merely affirms to a child that these creatures do exist, and will come to get them. An alternative is to accompany them in checking their room’s nook and crannies, so that they can be assured that they have nothing to be afraid of. The Bach Flower Remedy Aspen helps heal fear of monsters and general fear of the dark.
Fear of robbers is a different matter of course, as the possibility of getting burglarized does exist. If your child is afraid of criminals making it to their room, the best thing a parent can do is show them how tightly locked their windows are, and how accessible is help in case they need it. With children old enough to understand “probability” parents can do a bit of homestyle cognitive therapy: ask the child if they personally know anyone who was bothered by robbers (this only works if you live in a safe neighborhood). Then ask them how likely it is that a robber will break into their house. If the child knows that it is highly unlikely but still feels intense fear you have several options:
- Help the child to learn to just “sit” with his or her fear; tell the child to pay attention to the fear and how it feels in the body (i.e. around the heart, in the tummy). The child should continue to feel the fear in the body and just let it be there. Sooner or later the fear will just stop by itself (this being the nature of adrenaline).
- Teach the child some visualization strategies: help him or her to picture protective angels, animals or other imaginary protectors. Or, help the child picture sleeping safely at night and waking safely in the morning.
- If you have a religious faith, teach the child to pray for protection before going to sleep.
- Assign a large stuffed animal to protect the room (especially suitable for small children but even bigger kids with robber phobias may go for this)
- Leave the light on.
- Give the child the Bach Remedy called Mimulus. Add 2 drops to water or other hot or cold liquid four times a day until the child’s fear of robbers diminishes.
- If none of the above steps work, consider arranging a consultation with a child psychologist.