By Emsie Martin
Many children are scared of the dark – especially toddlers, pre-school children and sometimes even school-going children. Sometimes parents react by think it’s just naughtiness, but for many children it’s a normal phase that will pass.
At this age children have a great imagination and sometimes struggle to distinguish between fantasy and reality. They will therefore think the monster they saw on TV or about which someone told them, might be hiding under their bed or in their closet. It’s very important that parents don’t dismiss this fear their child is experiencing as something insignificant.
Parents should ask themselves:
- Has there recently been any big changes in the child’s life, for example divorce, the death of a loved one, a pet? Sometimes anxiety in children can manifest in the shape of fear of the dark.
- Is any other worrisome conduct noticeable in the child, for example, has academic prowess become poorer, does he/she isolate him/herself from friends and family? Fear of the dark can sometimes be part of another, bigger problem.
- Do you allow your child to watch violent TV programmes or horror movies?
(I must admit children’s stories nowadays are far from those I knew as a child, which is all the more reason why parents must know what their children are watching).
- Does your child have nightmares when he/she sleeps or is there any other reason why your child doesn’t want to sleep in the dark?
- Is someone upsetting your child with scary stories? Children are very sensitive to scary stories and because they struggle to distinguish between reality and fantasy it’s a good idea to not expose your child to this.
What can you as a parent do?
- Acknowledge your child’s fear – “I can see you are scared.”
- Don’t dismiss it – “You are a big boy/girl who shouldn’t be scared of the dark.”
- Ask your child what causes him/her to be scared – “Tell me what frightens you?”
- Ask your child what could make it better ‘ “What will make you feel better or take away the scariness?” and do something about it. Leave a light on for your child to sleep by, show him/her there is nothing in his closet or under the bed, find a comfort item, such as a special teddy or blanket, sing a song or, if you are religious, you can let your child say a prayer to ask God for protection and to sooth your child’s heart.
- If the fear influences your child’s functioning and bedtime becomes chaotic, it would be wise to approach a therapist for a full evaluation.
According to Andri van den Berg, relationship councillor, one of the possible reasons for a fear of the dark might be the transition from being awake to sleeping, from light to dark, from day to night. Here a good, predictable evening routine or bedtime routine is extremely important. A fixed, relaxed, loving bedtime routine makes a child feel safe and helps him/her with this transition between waking up (with Mom and Dad, busy and on the go) to bedtime (more peaceful, softer, and alone).
It could sometimes cause big problems and emotional outbursts if parent don’t spend enough time and effort on a systematic transition.
Another possible reason for fear of the dark is: “dark adaptation”. When you suddenly move from a brightly lit area into a dark area, there is a period when you see and experience pitch darkness; even with your eyes open. It takes a while for your eyes to adjust to the low light intensity. After the adaptation period you can once again see a bit clearer. It sometimes happens that in that pitch dark moment the fear creeps into children’s hearts.
Many parents have fallen into the trap of trying to address their child’s fear of the dark by switching on a light somewhere. The problem here is that many clinical studies have found that to leave a light on in the room or the passage results in children in the end taking longer to fall asleep or they don’t sleep well.
The light that is on sends the brain the message that it’s not dark yet and therefore still too early to go to bed. In fact, the light affects the brain’s concept of “time”. A very low intensity light that does not shine directly on to the child’s face is a very good option.
Sleep is extremely important for healthy development; make sure you set a good night’s rest as a priority for you and your children.
Perhaps you are a clinical psychologist, teacher or social worker who wants to help and support others. This can be ‘n thankless profession where usually you are the first to be criticised and the last to receive acknowledgment. You work wonders in a challenging environment where not everyone wants to be helped. This is why Solidarity’s Occupational Guilds offer you the opportunity to join any of the guilds. Visit the link https://guilds.solidarity.co.za/ for more information.