Dr Richard C. Woolfson
Although most children outgrow many of their early childhood fears – such as fear of the dark – by the time they are six year olds, there are some who still become anxious when it’s time for lights out. It isn’t rational, and your child might not be able to say why she’s still afraid.
There are several reasons why she’s feeling this way. First, she has an unlimited imagination that is not restricted by knowledge or experience. She can become afraid even when there is no possible risk to her at all, because she imagines that danger lurks in the darkness. Second, she feels powerless. She also knows there are some things she cannot manage on her own – for instance, she knows she cannot run away quickly if something frightens her. Lastly, even at kindergarten age, your child occasionally merges fact and fantasy. The power of her imagination, coupled with her lack of worldly experience, results in a blurring of boundaries between what’s real and what’s simply the product of her own mind.
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So, her imagined terrors about things that lurk in the dark can seem very real to her. These three factors combine to make your child persist with her fear of darkness. This phobia can also persist because of your reaction to her anxiety. Suppose, for example, that your child wakes up during the night with a bad dream and is very upset. You might comfort her, give her a drink and a biscuit, and then keep her beside you for the night. That’s a common, caring response to a child who says she’s distressed during darkness.
But the problem is that such a strong reaction may begin to make her “fear attractive” – from her point of view – because she learns that fear of the dark is a good way to grab your attention. However, if you reassure her that she is safe and then gently soothe her in her own bed until she has calmed down, she’ll soon fall asleep again.
Here are some suggestions to help your child beat her anxiety about darkness:
1. Take her seriously Resist the temptation to ridicule her, in the hope of making her see that she has nothing to be afraid of. This strategy won’t work. It will only make her feel more alone because she thinks you don’t understand.
2. Boost her confidence Your child is convinced that hidden dangers lie waiting for her. That’s why you need to tell her that she need not worry; that she will be safe.
3. Encourage her Keep supporting your child until she has overcome her fear. Remember that fear of darkness has one feature in common with all other fears: it can be beaten eventually.
4. Consider a night light A small night light or an electric plug that glows in the dark may be just what your nervous child needs to get over her fear. There’s no harm in using this as a short-term solution.
5. Wean her slowly As her confidence grows, reduce the use of the night light by a couple of minutes each night, until she no longer wants it on at all.
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