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How to Help Kids Overcome a Fear of the Dark

It never fails. You finally creep out of your child’s room after a bedtime story and not even five minutes later, he’s calling your name. He may want a glass of water, another story or even a few more minutes of cuddling with mom, dad or the nanny.

However, sometimes the cause of those cries during bedtime is because your child is afraid of the dark. “Children are afraid of the dark because it makes them feel ungrounded and therefore, unsafe,” says Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, New York-based licensed marriage and family therapist.

Therefore, it’s crucial for nannies and parents to make children feel “safe” in the comfort of their own rooms. Learn how to minimize those fears and help your child fall fast asleep without thoughts of the infamous monster under the bed.

Shedding Light on the Problem

A careful look at a child’s development can help uncover why the darkness seems so scary. According to Hokemeyer, children develop emotionally based on their relationship and subsequent independence from objects.

“The primary ‘object’ in this regard is their mother,” he says. “At birth, they are completely dependent on their mother for life, and as a result, they are biologically wired to relate to her and other objects like the bottle, their crib and later their toys, blankets and rooms.”

When the lights go off, it’s difficult for a child to recognize that these objects still exist. “In darkness, they lose this connection and are placed in a vacuum that is void of any tangibles for them to emotionally hold onto,” says Hokemeyer.

Events that are concerning can also add to your child’s fear of the dark. According to Dr. Dennis Rosen, a Boston-based pediatric pulmonologist and sleep specialist, there may be situations or issues that are keeping your child from falling asleep. “If the neighbor’s house was broken into three weeks earlier, being concerned about burglars is not unreasonable,” says Rosen.

Children who feel safe with themselves and their environment tend to experience less anxiety when the lights are shut off.

Clearing Out the Ghosts and Goblins

Even though it may seem appropriate to eliminate the dark by switching on hall lights or closet lights to appease a child who fears the dark, the bright lights may not help her fall fast asleep, says Rosen. It’s likely with the extra light that your child will still toss and turn or lie wide awake once you say “good night.”

“One of the main reasons this happens is that, as demonstrated in clinical studies, light directly affects the brain’s inner clock, and delays sleep onset,” says Rosen. “The brain interprets the presence of light as a sign that it is still daytime, and therefore much too early for sleep. This results in longer time to sleep onset.”

The best way for parents and nannies to help their children feel comfortable in darkness is to desensitize them in what is called “systematic desensitization,” says Hokemeyer. “This means that parents should sit with their children and help them process life in the dark,” he says. “When doing this, it’s very important for parents to coach their children by tracking their emotions and what’s happening around them.”

Phrases such as “Ok, now I’m going to turn off the lights and we are going to talk about what it is like” and “Mommy is going to be here holding your hand for one minute and then I’m going to let go, but I’ll still be here,” will help reassure your child and help him adjust to the new environment.

Open communication during this process helps your child not only adjust, but also learn how to be more independent. “Have your child talk about what it is like for them,” suggests Hokemeyer. “When your child says ‘I’m scared, mommy,” respond with ‘That’s okay. What are you afraid of?’ Continue to have a dialogue with your child about what is happening in the moment.”

As your child explores his thoughts about sitting in the dark, it helps to also have him ground himself in his body, says Hokemeyer. Questions such as “where are you laying?” or “where are your feet?” will help him focus on the moment and get out of the scary future he goes to.

“Go slowly with all of this,” recommends Hokemeyer. “Their fear is not overcome in a night. Teaching our children things takes time, patience, love and persistence.”

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