"Mommy I am afraid of the dark, please don’t turn the lights off! Mommy, can you tell me a bedtime story? Mommy, will you stay with me till I fall asleep?” These are common requests made by small children before going to bed. I am sure some parents are worried about their children’s fear of the dark, but my psychologist friend assures me that there is nothing to worry about.
Some degree of fear of the dark is natural, especially during a child’s development. Conversations with my friend and several young children confirmed that most children are afraid of the dark—usually a result of the fear of possible or imagined dangers concealed by the darkness. This fear of darkness seldom appears before the age of two and normally passes as they grow older and develop coping mechanisms. Sigmund Freud explains the fear of the dark as a manifestation of separation anxiety.
When I look back in time, when my sons were little children, I remember the story-time ritual before they went to bed. I usually kept a small light on in their room; sometimes even tidying up the room before going to bed. I did not realize then that all these activities made my children feel more secure and loved. Security is something that children expect from their parents. To build this trust, parents need to spend more time with their children to better understand their expectations and concerns.
To understand children better, it is always helpful to know the cause of their insecurities. Often, children are insecure because they are still learning how to cope with their feelings. Toddlers are still in the process of understanding the concept of size. Hence, it is natural for them to be afraid of unfamiliar things they don’t understand or can’t control. Their active imaginations, and their inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy, makes them susceptible to believing in supernatural beings like ghosts and monsters waiting in the dark to jump on them, once the light goes out.
Fears of children who are of primary school-going age could be both real and imaginary. As children grow, their sources of fear also change. For example, fear of dark or of hidden monsters may evolve into a fear of burglary or violence, if not checked in time. Sometimes parents may not realize that their actions are further fuelling their children’s insecurities. Often, we scare our children and warn them of ghosts or other such beings to coax them into sleeping, eating or so on. This further makes the child afraid of darkness. So, the question that arises is how to handle children who are afraid of the dark.
To begin with, making fun of children, teasing them or forcing them to confront their fears will only make things worse. Instead, it’s always a good idea to take their fears seriously and encourage them to talk about their feelings. At the same time, telling them facts and giving them the opportunity to confront their fears at their own pace with your support, one step at a time, is also a sensible strategy. Making them comfortable to talk about issues that are bothering them also helps. For that, we have to accept their feelings as being real and respond to them sensitively.
It is also always a good idea to give your child some control over matters. I still remember my youngest son checking the doors before going to sleep as a child. Consider putting a lamp by their bedside so they can switch on the light themselves. Use a dim bulb in their room or let some light filter into their room from the hallway, and establish an enjoyable bedtime routine. Activities like checking the room from their perspective to see if there is a picture or a toy that may look creepy in low light can help build some security in the child.
Some degree of fear of the dark is natural for little children. But this fear and insecurity needs to be handled with sensitivity and compassion.
Predictable bedtime routines give comfort and help reduce anxiety. Reassure them that they are safe; explain there are no such things as monsters. If the child is still afraid, ask him/her for suggestions on what would make him/her feel more secure or offer suggestions like taking a favorite toy or special blanket to bed. I still remember my younger son sleeping with my shawl, which made him feel protected.
We all experience fear at some point, no matter how big we are or how brave we might be. Sometimes, we as adults forget that there are circumstances, both real and imaginary, that can make a child feel insecure. Even if you don’t think your child has a problem, you can still do your best to see that the child continues to feel secure as she/he grows. It is important to handle a child’s fear of the dark with sympathy and understanding. If you aren’t afraid of the dark, you may find yourself ridiculing or dismissing your child’s feelings, or even becoming frustrated and angry. Such an approach may contribute towards increasing their anxiety levels. The first thing to do to help your child overcome their irrational fear is to accept their feelings as real and respond to them sensitively.
Next time you come across children who are scared of darkness, chances are they are not cooking things up but have deep rooted fears and insecurities which need to be dispelled with a little understanding and compassion.