Afraid of the Dark

  • Afraid of the Dark
    By CWK Network Producer

    “It began when he was very young, and I had hoped that he would grow out of it, and he’s nine years old now and he’s still afraid of the dark.”
    -Michael Smith, Father

    Tonight some children will lie awake in their beds, thinking about the holiday gifts they’re hoping to get, while others will lie there … afraid. Fear of the dark is one of the most common fears in children. But some kids hold onto the fear much longer than others, leaving parents to wonder what to do.

    Three-year-old Alexander sleeps with a light because in the dark, he sees things.

    “He’s going to come running, ‘Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, I’m scared, I don’t want to be without you, and it’s dark, and I see shadows!’ ” explains his mother, Leslie Sokol.

    Nine-year-old Blake sleeps with a flashlight and plenty of batteries.

    “I’m afraid of there might be someone inside the house that I just don’t know, and it might be a robber,” he says.

    Countless children are afraid of the dark, but some children hold onto the fears much longer than others, leaving parents to wonder what they should say.

    “I don’t know what the gauge is,” says Michael Smith, Blake’s father. “What is the age where you should not be afraid of the dark?”

    It is different for every child, but the key is to be supportive and non-judgmental, says Gene Urbain, a clinical psychologist.

    “You want to join with the kid, you want to acknowledge that the fear is real to the kid, even if it’s not particularly rational, or you don’t agree with it. And you want to give them some words, or some ways of dealing with it,” he says.

    Experts say the worst thing you can do for children who are afraid of the dark is to tease or punish them for it, which can both make the problem worse. Parents can help older children overcome their fears by making the bedroom darker and darker over time. First let him or her sleep with a nightlight, then only a hall light, and then only on certain nights of the week.

    “You negotiate it,” Urbain says. “You don’t want to give in too much to the fear, but you have to help the kid move step by step towards mastering the fear, and overcoming the fear.”

    In Alexander’s room, the light stays on until he falls asleep. But with encouragement, he is seeing fewer monsters these days, and getting more excited about the night sky.

    “And nighttime is really neat,” Leslie Sokol tells her son. “You can look out your window and see stars!”

    Fear of the Dark One of Many Childhood Phobias
    By CWK Network, Inc.

    Fears and phobias may be part of the price we pay for our highly-developed minds and sense of self. Phobias can range from simple fears that are dealt with at a subconscious level to others that have strong negative effects on one’s life. Adults suffer from simple phobias such as a fear of heights to an intense fear flying in an airplane. Most phobias can be dealt with by the individual, but some require counseling or medication.

    In general, children experience fears and worries on different levels. Fear of the dark is a common phobia and can affect children of all ages.

    The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that certain fears should be expected as children develop:

    • Five Months. A five-month-old baby may be afraid of a strange new face.
    • Pre-School. Preschoolers may have fears of the dark or monsters.
    • School Age. Imaginary threats are replaced by more realistic fears such as bodily harm.

    Fears serve a useful, healthy purpose in stopping children from taking unnecessary risks. The AAP also advises:

    • Children who are shy and withdrawn are more likely to develop marked fears than those who are outgoing.
    • Girls are more likely than boys to develop the severe, irrational fears (phobias).
    • Certain fears may grow out of parents’ needs. After a divorce, or the death of a spouse for example, a parent may unwittingly encourage a child’s separation anxiety out of a desire for companionship.
    • If parents are overprotective or fearful themselves, they may foster timidity and hamper a youngster’s attempts to stretch his abilities.

    Children may also develop more specific phobias:

    • A preschooler who screams for about an hour after falling asleep may be experiencing night terrors.
    • A child who wakes up often in the middle of the night may be having nightmares
    • If your child refuses to go to school or complains of severe but vague symptoms (headache, nausea, dizziness) to avoid school they may experiencing a school phobia or separation anxiety. They might even be a victim of bullying.

    What Parents Need to Know

    The key for parents is to be supportive and non-judgmental of their child. Child psychologist Stephen Garber suggests:

    • Do not belittle your child’s fear of the dark or force him to stay in a darkened room just because he’s ‘too old’ to be afraid.
    • Ask your child what he feels when he’s alone in the dark. Even if his apprehension seems ridiculous to you, reassure him with concrete information. For example, say “You’re right that the house make funny sounds at night. Let’s listen to them together and I’ll tell you what each one is.”
    • Teach your child to calm himself by saying, “I’m safe in the dark; my mom and dad are nearby” or “That sound was just the heat coming on.”
    • Gradually decrease the light in the room, starting with a lower watt bulb in his lamp, them leaving a light on only in the hallway. Offer praise each time he goes to sleep with less light.
    • Help you child avoid scary TV shows and movies, since nighttime fears can be greatly intensified by what a child is exposed to during the day.

    Parents should consult their pediatrician if the child’s fears are:

    • Interfering with family activities.
    • Creating problems in making friends.
    • Creating an excuse for not going to school.
    • Disrupting normal sleep habits.
    • Resulting in compulsive behavior.
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    About the Program

    Tonight some children will lie awake in their beds, thinking about the holiday gifts they’re hoping to get, while others will lie there … afraid. Fear of the dark is one of the most common fears in children. But some kids hold onto the fear much longer than others, leaving parents to wonder what to do.

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