Sleep Tight: Seven Tips for Overcoming Fear of the Dark
For a child who is already fearful of the dark, the spooky images surrounding Halloween can make fears worse. But, fear of the dark can be a frustrating problem for kids and parents any time of the year.
According to Dr. Jane Sosland, a clinical child and adolescent psychologist, nearly 30 percent of children have sleep problems and oftentimes, bedtime battles can last well past midnight.
Fear of the dark is a normal part of development and one of the most common childhood problems for families of school-age children. Kids who are afraid of the dark take nearly an hour longer than others to fall asleep. Without a good night’s sleep, children can suffer behavioral and mood issues and have trouble concentrating at school.
How can parents best support a frightened kiddo?
Discuss the fear.
Listen carefully to your child, without playing into his fears, to see if you can identify a trigger. Nighttime fear might be caused by a fairy tale before bed or even a stressful event during the school day.
“Maybe somebody was mean to him on the playground,” Dr. Sosland says. “It could also be there’s some separation anxiety that occurs during the day, as well as at night, in terms of being able to sleep by himself.”
Other times, the fear won’t make much sense at all.
“Kids are excellent at leading the way when it comes to asking for the information they are ready to hear,” says Melisa Moore, licensed psychologist specializing in pediatric sleep with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “By listening to them, you’ll find out not only what they’re worried about, but also what they want to know. I suggest having these conversations at a time other than right before bed, so that these fears don’t become even more strongly associated with bedtime. After school or after dinner are great times. At bedtime, try to stick to a normal routine because the way nighttime fears go away is that children learn through experience (going to bed at night) that they are safe.”
Beware of frightening images.
As kids wind down after a busy day and the quiet of the night sets in, they may begin to replay scary images in their heads that they saw during the day in books, movies, video games or on the evening news. Pair those visuals with the strange nighttime creaks of the house and a shadow suddenly appearing to move across the wall and you’ve got a wide-eyed kid at midnight.
Limit exposure to violent images and turn off the news when your youngster is around. According to a 2016 study published in Frontiers in Pediatrics, exposure to repeated images of terrorism in the media can negatively affect a child’s emotional health. “These almost live events can cause feelings of [danger], hopelessness and helplessness, which are often externalized by conduct problems,” the researchers write.
But alarming images aren’t the only source of terror.
“These kids are quite imaginative. They imagine all sorts of things in the dark that aren’t there,” Dr. Sosland says.
Young children often can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality. If they imagine a monster in the closet, in their mind it must be there.
“Fears are not necessarily something that can be reasoned or rationalized so reassuring them tends not work because they just look for more and more reassurance,” Dr. Sosland adds.
Switch on the light.
If your kiddo can only fall asleep if her ceiling light is on, relax. Over time, dim the light. Gradually move toward the soft, warm glow of a lamp, then a closet light, and finally a night light that is yellow or orange in color.
“I don’t know of any research that supports specific colors or lights for sleep,” says Dr. Moore. “What is clear is that the specific wavelength of light emitted by electronics interferes with sleep. So children should avoid all electronics an hour before bed.”
Work on breathing techniques.
If your child already struggles with anxiety, teach him coping mechanisms during the day that you can employ at night too. For example, have a younger child blow bubbles to calm down.
Teach older children deep belly breathing. Have them breathe in for five seconds and slowly breathe out as if they have a birthday candle in front of them.
“But you don’t want to blow it out. You just want the ‘flame’ to flicker,” Dr. Sosland advises.
Offer a transitional object.
Comfort your youngster with a stuffed animal or a special blanket to help him sleep. If you’ve become your child’s favorite teddy bear, begin phasing out his reliance on you by getting up just as he’s falling asleep. If he starts to protest, promise that you’ll check in on him in five minutes.
If he’s in the habit of snuggling up with you in your bed and you prefer independent sleeping arrangements, have him transition to a pallet next to your bed. Eventually, move his bed back down toward his own bedroom.
Set up a sleep-promoting environment.
White noise, fans, sound machines and soft background music can push back the deafening silence of the night. Also make sure your child’s bed is comfortable, the temperature in the room is cool and put away any distracting electronic devices.
Stick with a bedtime routine.
Take time to reminisce about happy events from the day. Listen to soothing music and put aside electronics. Read a calming, uplifting book together before bed. And help children come up with a positive image that they can picture as they’re drifting off to sleep, such as playing with their favorite pet.
If your child’s nighttime anxiety continues to worsen, consult your family physician.
Freelance journalist Christa Melnyk Hines is the mom of two boys and author of Happy, Healthy & Hyperconnected: Raise a Thoughtful Communicator in a Digital World.