Afraid of the dark

Young children are often scared of the dark - and the monsters they imagine hiding in their room! Supernanny expert Dr Martha Erickson explains how to handle your little one's fears.

For many reasons, young children get frightened when they're alone, especially at night and in the dark. They often imagine all sorts of scary creatures in the cupboard or under the bed. Very young children can't separate reality from fantasy, and when they can't see what's around them, their vivid imaginations go to work.

How can we ease our pre-schooler’s fear of the dark?

We received this question from a concerned parent. "Several times lately our four-year-old has got very worked up at night, claiming that there's a monster under his bed. He says that he's afraid to be alone in his room. Is this cause for concern? And how can we help him get over these fears?"

Dr Erickson says…

What you describe is not at all unusual in young children, and the frightening images that surround them on TV and film may feed into these fears. Actual news stories of children being abused or kidnapped can erode the security of children of all ages. It also is common for ordinary stress and anxiety to bubble up at night – when children can't exactly name what's making them uneasy, it may come out as imagined creatures.

Such fears become cause for serious concern only when they go on long enough – or are intense enough – that they interfere significantly with a child’s sleep or with their ability to play and learn during the daytime hours. In that case it would be wise to check to be sure he hasn’t experienced something traumatic, and seek professional counselling if needed.

For now, here are a few tips on how to help your son master these fears so that he – and you – can rest easily:

Take your son's fears seriously, without overreacting. It’s important not to dismiss or ridicule his fears. Hear his feelings and reflect them back to him with words: “I can see you're really scared.”

Reassure him that you’re there to make sure he is safe. Offer comfort as needed, and demonstrate to him that there's nothing frightening in his room. This may mean turning on the light in his closet or looking under the bed to show him that everything is fine.

Over time, help him actively master his fears by reading or making up stories about little boys and their monsters. Or you could join him in imaginative play and act out monster stories; for example, he could pretend to be the monster and you could be the child who tells the monster to either start being nice or go somewhere else. Or your son could be the parent reassuring his stuffed animal or doll that he will keep them safe.

Finally, see through your child's eyes by remembering your own childhood. What used to frighten you? And what did you find comforting at those times? As with so many aspects of parenting, our own childhood memories often yield the best information on how to care for our children.

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