Many, if not all children, are afraid of the dark at some point. This fear often sets in around age 3, when a child enters the world of imaginative play. As the child’s imagination develops, they begin to project imaginary creations into the world around them. Darkness represents an unknown reality; when a child looks around a dark room, their senses don’t immediately tell them about what is in the room. This leaves their imagination a lot of room to work. Even if they know what the room looks like when it’s light, they easily imagine that it can be different when it’s dark. Hence they have monsters hiding under the bed or wild beasts in the closet.
If your child is going through this phase, here are some strategies that can help.
1. Reassure your child. Children that are old enough to fear the dark are usually old enough to communicate verbally pretty well. Encourage them to talk to you about their fears. Sometimes expressing things aloud produces relief. When they see that you don’t make fun of them for their fear, but want to help them with it, they will gain more confidence that helps them face their fear. Remind your child that they are safe and you are taking care of them.
2. SHOW your child that they are safe. If they’re upset because they’re imagining scary things in their room, turn the lights on to show them what is really there. If they got frightened by a shadow, show them what the shadow is from. If they’re afraid something’s in the closet, open the closet so they can see what’s there. Don’t focus on proving that there are no monsters, but on helping your child learn about what really is there, as this gives them greater security and makes it easier for them to keep their imagination in check when the lights are off again.
3. Check in on your child. Knowing that you are nearby and come in once in a while to check on them helps your child feel safe.
4. Avoid scary things before bedtime (scary TV shows or story books, for example). Watch, do and talk about happy things. If your child has happy thoughts in their mind before bed, it’s less likely that they’re going to start imagining scary things in the dark.
5. Help your child relax. Taking a shower, cuddling and singing before bed can help. Again, the more relaxed your child is, the easier it is for them to have happy thoughts and feelings on their way to bed.
6. Make sure your child has something that makes them feel secure. Being afraid of the dark makes your child feel insecure. Something that gives them security can make their fear disappear. Sometimes having another sibling sleeping in the same room helps, or just having a particular toy, blanket or stuffed animal, or having familiar songs playing in the background.