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Your kid’s afraid of the dark and doesn’t want to sleep alone.
Every night it’s the same thing, can the light stay on? Can the door stay open? I don’t want to sleep alone!
And it seems to be coming out of nowhere!
Our children were used to sleeping in the complete dark from birth and before (after all, it’s pretty dark in the womb).
But suddenly it’s an issue. My kid’s afraid of the dark!
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My kid’s afraid of the dark!
It’s something that most of us don’t know how to react to.
We don’t want our children to be afraid, but we don’t want to overly spoil them either.
Is this something they grow out of? Is leaving the light on a good decision or a bad one? Should we tell them this fear is nonsense?
And if you don’t tell them it’s nonsense, how do you validate their fears without confirming that the dark is indeed something to be afraid of.
What should you do or think when your kid’s afraid of the dark?
It’s normal if your kid’s afraid of the dark
Between 2 and 4 years of age it is quite common for kids to be afraid of the dark.
It’s the time that the imagination undergoes major development. Dragons, bad guys, ghosts are called into existence and played with during the day and they are not always easily laid to rest at night.
On top of that, children at this age are just starting to learn how to distinguish fantasy from reality, making it quite possible for something to suddenly be hiding in the wardrobe…
In addition to this, children also start to realize that there are things out there, real things, that can hurt them. We all warn our children not to go with strangers, for instance, for this very reason.
These may be a few reasons why your kid’s afraid of the dark and at a young age it’s perfectly normal.
Don’t worry if you kid’s afraid of the dark
A last thing to take into consideration is your child’s temperament: a sensitive child may be more fearful at night. Don’t worry too much about these fears unless they truly interfere with your child’s sleep.
What you can do if your kid’s afraid of the dark
It is our job to help our children in the learning process of separating between real fears and the imagined ones.
And it’s a process that can take far longer than most people suspect.
Be prepared to tackle your child’s nighttime fears for the next 10 years or so. Realize that this is a normal developmental stage (more on when it isn’t a normal phase further below) and that most likely he or she will grow out of it.
Here are some things you can do in the meantime.
1. Respect their fears
Do not try to talk him or her out of it. Also don’t taunt or tease, even in jest. Show that you understand your child is genuinely afraid and that you’re taking this seriously.
Don’t show any anger or frustration you might feel if your kid’s afraid of the dark. Accept that fear comes with growing up.
A negative reaction from you might stress your child further and make matters worse. And remember that even for most adults, our worries and anxieties seem to be worse at night.
2. Start a soothing bedtime ritual
Have a soothing bedtime ritual that is pleasant and positive. Include a fun (and safe) bedtime story and a favorite stuffed animal that can serve to guard and protect your child in the night.
3. Use a 2-way baby monitor
Have a 2-way baby monitor installed, so that if you child is truly afraid they can talk at you and hear you voice back. This way, they know that even though they can’t see you, you’re still there and watching over them.
4. Check the room for them
Go through the room and check every nook and cranny that your child thinks are suspect. It not only shows that there is nothing there, but you also show that you are not afraid. Remember that children tend to mimick our behavior, so the calmer and more understanding you are, the better they’ll deal with their fears as well.
5. Explain the sounds they hear
If they’ve heard a sound, name what the sound is (a car on the road, a door in the neighbor’s house). Try to sound sure about what kind of sound it is, even if you don’t know what it is. I’ve found that my children respond very well to my explanations as long as I sound like I know what I’m talking about.
6. Install a light
Let your child have a flashlight, nightlight or a light on the landing. It means they can check their surroundings and will make them feel more in control.
Do beware of not letting too much light into the room, you don’t want it to interfere with your child’s sleep. Experiment with leaving the door partially open, or a dimmed light / nightlight.
Over time, you can help your child master his or her fear by making up stories about kids and their (pet)monsters.
7. Teach positive self talk
Teach your child to use positive self talk, telling themselves that “it’s just dark, I’m not afraid of the shadows,” or “I’m not alone, mommy is just in the next room.”
The idea is to just have a calm conversation about it, where slowly, over the years, you take opportunities such as these to teach your child how to think through stressful or scary situations.
8. Help them face their fear
Lastly, I want to add something that won’t help over the short term, but will be very helpful over the long term.
In it’s lifetime your child will encounter more scary or stressful situations.
Start teaching your child to name what is frightening him or her. Ask them questions.
Can you tell me why you are afraid?
What do you think is in the shadow?
Tell me, what you think it looks like?
What do you think will happen?
At this age, probably your child won’t be able to answer these questions, but asking them is a good habit to develop. This is one of those instances where you do the actual child-rearing.
When your child doesn’t have an answer to these questions, don’t see that as a reason to dismiss their fears. Simply explain that in all cases it’s just good to know what we’re dealing with, without confirming or denying that these things might be true or real.
Fear of the dark for a mom
It’s no fun seeing my son struggle with these fears. Especially since I know there’s nothing lurking in the shadows (no self-respecting dragon will fit underneath his bed).
Recently, there was some noise at the neighbours house (sounded like they were moving some furniture) and he woke up in complete panic. It took a while to calm him down and to convince him that going back to sleep was a good idea.
We still use a bedtime ritual that includes either reading a story (mommy’s job) or gently stroking the back of his neck (daddy’s job). A stuffed animal, 2-way baby monitor and the door open with a light on the landing seal the deal.
Usually our son still tells us that he doesn’t want to sleep alone (and then asks whoever is tucking him in to instruct the other parent that the light needs to stay on and the door needs to stay open), but then he goes to sleep.
When fear of the dark is not okay
As stated above, nighttime fears are part of your child’s normal development and there is usually no reason to worry. However if any of the following applies:
- Nighttime fears are seriously interfering with your child’s sleep
- Something traumatic has happened to your child
- Your child may have been witness to some traumatic event
In all of the above cases, seek professional counseling. And as always, when in doubt about this: still seek professional counseling. In case of your child better to be safe than sorry.
This too will pass
Odds are, however ,that your child’s fear of the dark means he is going through a normal stage of development. And, in that sense the fear is a good sign. It means they have a lively imagination and they are in the process of getting a handle on that. Try using the tips listed above and see what works well and just hang in there. Fear of the dark, and other fears, may rear their ugly heads from time to time, but usually not longer than just a few weeks or a couple of months.
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