It’s all too common, a child waking in the night gripped by a fear of the dark. Some of us even carry it into our adult lives. So, what can you do to help?
A fear of the dark is one of the most common of childhood fears. Its official name is ‘nyctophobia’ and, for some children, the fear of night-time, or darkness, can cause intense symptoms.
A study carried out by the Saint Leo University in Florida revealed the fear is mostly connected to the loss of visual stimuli – for the simple fact that we can’t see what is around us. And the symptoms can range from anxiety to depression.
Some of the physical symptoms of nyctophobia include sweating, trouble breathing, chest tightness, shaking, dizziness or an upset stomach. Some of the emotional signs include panic and anxiety, a feeling of losing control, a desperate need to escape the situation or a feeling of being powerless over your fear.
A fear of the dark usually first occurs around the age of 3 or 4 when a child’s imagination is beginning to expand. Once a child is exposed to a world beyond what they might experience within their own home, through social media, television and movies, their imaginations are also expanded.
Causes of fear of the dark
Associate Professor, School of Psychology at Deakin University, Dr Jade Sheen says the age at which a fear of the dark begins can vary, but it’s usually from around the age of three that the child is exposed to a range of different stimuli.
“By the ages of three and four, most children would most likely have watched TV, looked at picture books and many other things that can possibly activate that imagination. The real concern is when they’re exposed to all things monster-related and other gruesome images,” Dr Sheen says.
“When you realise your child is frightened of the dark, one of the best things to acknowledge is that whilst the monsters aren’t actually real, the fear itself is.
“It’s important that we don’t buy into the fear of the monsters by checking under the bed and ushering the monster out the door because, essentially, what we’re doing is letting them know that there is a monster there.
“If they’re led to believe there really is a monster then they will believe that they should be afraid.”
Instead, Dr Sheen suggests parents should be showing their child empathy and letting them know that you’re taking their fears seriously.
“You can say, ‘I understand that you feel anxious or afraid and that’s a normal feeling. We all feel scared of something, but monsters aren’t real and it’s okay. So, what can we do to make you feel safer?’,” Dr Sheen says.