Teeth brushed? Check. Pajamas on? Check. Story read? Check. Tucked in? Check. Search the closets for monsters? Should you or shouldn’t you? Many children are afraid of the dark, and these fears becomes especially present during bedtime, when they are alone with their thoughts of monsters, ghosts, or other scary creatures that lurk in the dark. Children may also have difficulties differentiating between fantasy and reality, especially if they hear scary stories at school or see monsters on television. Implementing a consistent bedtime routine takes time and energy, and when children are afraid of the dark, this routine can become stressful for everyone involved. As parents, listening to your children’s fears and empathizing with them, creating appropriate accommodations, and empowering your children are ways to help them with their fears.
Do’s and Don’ts to Help Children Who Are Scared of the Dark:
Listen, normalize, and empathize
DO: Listen to your children’s concerns with an open, warm, nonjudgmental stance. They will be more likely to share their fears with you if they feel supported. Express curiosity about your children’s fears to gain an understanding of where their fears may have come from. This can help you reassure your children. For example, if they saw a show on television that had scary monsters, you can explain that television is pretend and different from real life.
DO: Help your children feel accepted by explaining that everyone has fears, even adults! Reassure your children by explaining that even though people feel afraid sometimes, they can overcome their fears. Children may feel embarrassed or hopeless about their fears; knowing that everyone has fears and that there are steps they can take to overcome them can help children feel reassured and hopeful.
DO: Empathize with your children’s concerns even if their fears are irrational. Let your children know that it is okay to feel scared.
DON’T: Minimize your children’s fears. Saying “You have nothing to be afraid of” or “That is silly! There are no such things as monsters!” can make your children feel embarrassed. Minimizing your children’s fears can also stop them from opening up to you in the future.
DON’T: Reinforce your children’s fears. Checking for ghosts or monsters, for example, shows children that you think they exist too, which can exacerbate their concerns. Instead, check for items that do exist. For example, open a closet and say, “Look! There are clothes and shoes in here, just like in the day” rather than “There are no monsters!”Create appropriate accommodations
DO: Help your children feel safe at night. Problem solve with them to see what they think will help them feel safe. This process can also help them feel in control and brave. Asking, “What do you think you can do to feel safe at night?” is a great place to start. Appropriate accommodations include listening to a favorite bedtime story, sleeping with a special blanket or stuffed animal, and using a nightlight.
DO: Add these accommodations to your children’s bedtime routines in a consistent way. If children know they can expect a goodnight kiss, a special stuffed animal, and a nightlight every night, they can feel safe and comfortable.
DON’T: Allow your children to sleep in your bed. As tempting as this may be and as much as your children may want to sleep in your bed, showing your children that they can feel safe and sleep in their own beds is very important. Letting your children sleep in your bed can send the message that their fears are legitimate and can, in turn, reinforce and maintain their fears.
Expose and Empower
DON’T: Pressure your children into exposure they are not ready for. Facing their fears without a plan or comfort can make children feel even more afraid.
DO: Help your children overcome their fears by gently exposing them to the dark in a fun way. For example, you can play games in the dark, such as flashlight tag, so your children can associate the dark with an enjoyable game.DO: Give praise when your children are able to sleep in the dark through the night. In the morning, you can say, “I’m so proud of you! Even though you were scared, you slept by yourself in the dark all night! I know you can do it again tonight.” You can also offer praise at night, by saying, “I like how you are trying to be brave and sleep in your bed. I know you can do it!”
What have you tried to help your children who are afraid of the dark? What has worked? What has not worked? Please share with us!