Overcoming childhood fears

Helping a child who is scared of the dark

Every parent knows that when your children sleep through the night, life is a lot easier. A broken night sleep can make the best of us tired and irritable; when it is repeated every night for a long time, everyone becomes increasingly worn out by the lack of rest.

Whole forests have been levelled to produce the vast array of books advising parents how to deal with poor sleepers and, as always, experts differ on methods to be used to get everyone back to regular undisturbed sleep patterns. As always, it’s usually common sense that seems to produce results including getting a bedtime routine in place and going to bed earlier.

But what if one of your little ones is afraid of the dark? How do parents deal with that specific irrational fear? After all the dark can be scary, even for adults, and children’s imaginations can run riot. One of my friends had a three-year-old daughter who was afraid to stay in her room alone with the lights out – but with the lights on she couldn’t sleep. A night–light didn’t solve the problem and the little girl took to insisting that her mother sit with her until she went to sleep each evening. This became very time-consuming and inconvenient, as well as being upsetting for the three-year-old, who, if she happened to awaken in the night, would call out for help.

Fears such as this are not innate characteristics in the child; they have been learned. Parents must be very careful in expressing their own fears because their youngsters are inclined to adopt those same anxieties. Some experts believe that good-natured teasing can also produce problems for a child. If a youngster walks into a dark room and is pounced upon from behind the door, he has learned something from the joke: the dark is not always empty!

Wherever children’s fears are learned, they can be difficult to reverse. (That’s not to say that we shouldn’t caution our children; knowing something bad may happen if they walk out in front of a car or run away in the shopping centre are things that children should know.) In this case the fear is, of course, irrational but very real to the child. In my friend’s case she used a process which is known as ‘extinction’ to change her daughter’s pattern of fear. She helped the little girl to see that there was nothing to be afraid of. It is usually unfruitful to try to talk a child out of fears, but it helps to show that you are confident and unthreatened in response to them. In other words, just because you insist there is not a bear under the bed, it doesn’t follow that the child will then no longer believe in the bear. Telling your little one that the bear can’t hurt her because her guardian angel protects her all night can produce a better result.

My friend bought a packet of stars and created a chart that showed how a new dolly for bed could be ‘earned’. Then she placed her chair just outside the little girl’s bedroom door. Her daughter won a star if she could spend a short time (ten seconds) in her bedroom with the light on and the door open.

This first step was not very threatening, and Marla enjoyed the game. It was repeated several times; then she was asked to walk a few feet into a slightly darkened room with the door still open while her Mam (clearly visible in the hall) counted to ten. She knew she could come out immediately if she wished and her Mam talked to her confidently and quietly. The length of time in the dark was gradually lengthened, and instead of producing fear, it produced stars and eventually a new dolly to bring to bed — a source of pleasure for a small child. Courage was being reinforced; fear was being extinguished. The cycle of fright was thereby broken, being replaced by a healthier attitude.

Extinction may be useful in helping your own child overcome her fear of the dark. My friend also took greater care in saying the Guardian Angel prayer with her little girl at each bedtime so that her daughter understood the words and took comfort from them. It was a good combination; there are no more shouts at night for fear of the dark.


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