“Mommy, don’t leave me!” “Daddy, I’m afraid of the dark!” “I want to sleep with you!” “There are monsters in my room!”
How many of you have heard from your little ones that they are afraid of the dark and don’t want to sleep alone?
I know that I’ve been there…more than once!
It pulls on our heart strings and makes us wonder…Are they really afraid of the dark? Are we doing the right thing to expect our children to sleep in their own beds and in their own rooms when they are telling us they are scared?
I haven’t met too many children who have not gone through some phase of being afraid of the dark. As most of us know from our own experiences, fear is a normal part of growing up and a normal part of development. Most commonly it is seen in children around 2-3 years of age when a child is old enough to have an imagination and, often, the age when they begin to be exposed to TV shows, books, and dress up characters.
The tricky part is that at this young of age it is difficult for a child to know the difference between their budding imagination and true reality.
Telling your child that “monsters don’t exist” and “you’ll be fine” likely won’t work. So, what can you do to help alleviate your child’s fears and help him be able to go to sleep on his own without being afraid?
Strategies when your little one tells you he is afraid of the dark….
- Empower your child to talk to you about what is scaring him. Putting words to the fears and getting them out in the open will often help a child feel better. Encourage your little one to draw a picture of what is scaring him and then, together, throw the paper and fear away.
- Don’t make light of the issue or tease your child. Validate how your child is feeling. Teasing will only make him feel more self-conscious and discourage him from talking to you about how he is feeling.
- Be honest. Bringing out monster spray shows your toddler that there really are monsters and you are needed to get rid of them. Instead, help him face his fear. Together, look under the bed and show him that there is nothing there other than a possible dirty sock!
- Be very aware of the books that he is being read and the TV shows and videos he is watching. Benign characters like friendly clowns can take on a whole new life in the imagination of a toddler – especially once the lights go off at night.
- Consider reading child-friendly books about night-time fears. Here are some good ones to choose from:
- There’s a Nightmare in my Closet by Mercer Mayer
- Orion and the Dark by Emma Yarlett
- Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear by Martin Waddell
- The Berenstain Bears in the Dark by Stan Berenstain
- Pick one of his stuffed animals to be his protector at night. Encourage your child to give his special stuffed animal some extra hugs if he is feeling a little fearful.
- Don’t bring your child to your bed if he says he is too afraid to sleep on his own. By doing that, you are sending the message that he is not capable of being in his bed and, maybe, there really are monsters in the room. If necessary, go to his room as needed.
- Use a dim night-light (preferably a red light bulb) to keep the room from being pitch dark. Make sure the nightlight is not too bright which can interfere with his sleep.
- Consider sitting in your child’s room with him for a few minutes after the lights have been turned off for the night. This gives him a bit of time with you while his eyes adjust to the dark and shows him that he is OK and safe. If your child finds it challenging to let you leave after a few minutes, set a timer for 5 minutes. When the timer goes off, it is time for mom or dad to leave the room.
- Keep your child well-rested. It is not uncommon for fears to pop up when a little one is overtired or going through a change (i.e a new baby in the house)
Being afraid of the dark can be a normal part of development…
Lots of sensitivity and patience will help your little one get through this and, once again, feel safe when alone in the dark. However, if the fear continues more than a few weeks, it is a good idea to discuss it with your child’s pediatrician to see if it would be beneficial to seek outside help.