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Afraid of the Dark?

by Sue Hubbard, M.D.

Just about every child goes through a phase when they become afraid of the dark.  It is interesting to see a toddler who happily goes to bed in their crib in complete darkness, turn into a 2 year old who is afraid of shadows and monsters in a dark room. How does that happen, seemingly overnight?

Actually fear is a normal part of development, and is usually  seen  in children around 2 -3 years of age. Fears develop when a child is old enough to have an imagination, but is not yet old enough to distinguish fantasy from reality.  Try telling your 3 year old “that ghosts aren’t real” and to “just go to sleep”, and I guarantee you will lose that discussion.

Night Night

Night Night

Fear of the dark is called “nyctophobia” and is amazingly common.  Even as an adult,  my worries and anxieties seem to be worse in the middle of the night in the darkness, than the same issues are during daylight hours.  A toddler has a very active imagination, which is also influenced by things that they see and hear  throughout the day.  Television shows and videos that they have watched or books that they have read may seem innocent enough during the day but may be a scary memory  at night.

When a child goes to bed, even after a lovely, calming bedtime routine, there are few distractions to keep their minds occupied and their young brains go into high gear in a dark room. The shadows are definitely a witch that they saw in a movie, or the noise in the hallway is a “bad guy”.  They are very real and VERY SCARY.

The best way to conquer fear is to discuss a child’s fears with them.  Talk about things that seem to make them afraid and turn off the TVs and stimulating videos.  Draw pictures of the scary thoughts and then have a party to throw them away.  By empowering them to talk about their fears will often help children feel better.  Teach them about positive self talk, with phrases such as” I am not afraid, it is just dark” or “I am not alone, Mommy and Daddy are in the other room”.

Another strategy that worked in our house was the “bedtime box”.  We decorated a shoe box and filled it with things to help make our boys feel safe and able to handle their fears. In the box was a flashlight, extra batteries ( for the “what if the batteries go out” discussion), a magic wand and monster dust to sprinkle in the room (glitter), and their favorite books.  They knew this box was there every night if they needed it.  Children will also often want a night light and some may even want the lights on for a while, but let them feel like they are in control.

Lastly, there are lots of books to read with your children about being afraid of the dark. Take a trip to the library, ask the librarian for suggestions. A few of our favorites were  “The Dark, Dark Night” and “Can’t You Sleep Little Bear”.

Children’s fear of the dark usually resolves around 4 -5 years of age as their magical thinking matures.

That’s your daily dose for today.  We’ll chat again soon.

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