When the lights go out at night, in your child’s imagination, any shadow is a tentacled monster — a sweatshirt on a chair becomes a hairy beast waiting to strike. Being afraid of the dark — or any imaginary creatures that suddenly appear when the lights go out — is very common for many children. But for some children, this fear is more acute and keeps them awake, preventing them from getting a good night’s sleep.
If your child is having trouble with her fear of the dark, there are ways you can help her get through this tough period.
- Get to the source. Talk to your child — preferably not at bedtime — about her fears. What, exactly, is she afraid of? How does it make her feel? What would make her feel safer? If she isn’t ready to talk, don’t pressure her.
- Don’t brush it off. It may seem very silly to you, but to your child the fear is very real. Use empathy with your child. You can say, “Wow, that sounds scary,” or “I understand why that frightens you.” Never belittle or tell her that she is being ridiculous.
- Don’t play along. You may think it is fun to check under the bed for monsters, use room freshener as monster repellent spray, but what you are doing is acknowledging that his imaginary monsters might in fact exist. You can gently remind your child that monsters aren’t real, even though they seem real in his mind
- Avoid scary shows. Don’t expose your child to television programs, movies or books that might frighten him or give him any new ideas.
- Find security items. Many children find comfort in special blankets, stuffed animals or even pets. A dog or cat curled up on the bed can provide a nice feeling of security, as can a goldfish swimming calmly in a nearby bowl.
- Light up the night. A night-light is very helpful in providing a dim light in the room. Today you can buy stuffed toys that light up and create patterns on the ceiling. Even some alarm clocks come with dim colored lights.
- Try bed checks. Once you put your child to bed, let him know you will come to check on him in five minutes. You can do another check in 10 minutes, then in 15. Don’t spend a lot of time in the room. Simply give a gentle pat on the back and remind him that it is time to sleep and that he is safe in his bed.
- Keep them in bed. You may think it will help for your child to sleep in your bed when she is scared. But you want to help her understand that her bed is a safe place. Instead of letting her come into your room, go into her room to provide comfort if she needs it. When your child gets out of bed at night, walk her back to her room and remind her that there is nothing to be scared of and that it is time for bed.
- Know when to get help. If your child’s fears persist for longer than a few months and his (and your) sleep is continually disrupted, it might be time to seek professional help. Contact your pediatrician and get some suggestions for how to best tackle the problem.
Contributed by: Patrick S. Pasquariello, MD