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Fear of the dark

Fear of the dark

My four year old is scared of the dark and needs us to stay with him while he goes to sleep and then comes into our room (and bed) when he wakes at night. It is legitimate fear and need for comfort but on the down side noone is getting any sleep! What should we do?

Some children do legitimately have a fear of the dark, for whatever reason their little minds have given them one. My advice would be to monitor what sorts of programmes he is watching later on in the day, as sometimes these could be what is triggering his imagination to prompt insecurity. Also, if you read bedtime stories, ensure that these are calm & peaceful sorts of stories, as opposed to action stories, which may help him to calm his mind down ready for sleep.

You could negotiate check in times with him, & even who is going to be doing this checking, so that he is aware that once the lights go out, he isn't all alone. For example he could negotiate for two checkins from Dad before Dad goes to bed, & perhaps one from Mum during the night, or something similar.

Also, is leaving a night light on an option? This means each time he wakes, he has a visual of the room.

Kylie Romero

Kylie Romero

Practice Improvement Area Lead, Goodstart Early Learning

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Parenting can present with times and situations that are exhausting. Unfortunately few of us are prepared for this or ready for it, and when we need our sleep most, to be woken often, can be a shock, and extremely challenging.

It is very normal to feel challenged and exhausted. And no matter how many people say it is short lived, and it will pass, it feels like one is in the midst of a life sentence wondering who will survive. Parent fun time also suffers that can impact on relationships. 

It is also very common to hear of children at this age appearing to have night fears or demanding not to sleep alone. One story was of a young girl who later complained that mum and dad slept in one bed, why did she have to sleep alone.

Children’s brains have been described as sense making machines at this age. It is actually an exciting age as children are craving a knowledge of everything they experience. They want to know about everything. The mind had developed tremendously by this age.

Children have a powerful imagination at this age as they are taking an enormous amount of information in, and a child’s reality and fact may sometimes be mixed up with fantasy. What to us is fantasy for children at this age can be very real. Children are also far more exposed to media, pictures and talk. 

For every child the reason for night fear can, and will be very different. We cannot ever be sure what is triggering anxiety and fear. It can range from monsters, to ghosts, an intruder,  or fear of death. It can evolve from a picture that has been seen walking past a shop, or an overheard conversation.

Anxiety makes us want to retreat and run away. The heart beats fast and our body reacts. A little anxiety is actually healthy for development as it keeps us alert.

It is really important we refrain from laughing, or shaming, or saying ‘don’t be silly’. We need to approach the child with true empathy, and an understanding ear.

Our aim is for your child to feel confident, happy to sleep, and feeling safe to sleep.

Following are some additional tips that have worked for many;

1. Try and create a wind down time 30 - 60 minutes before bed time. An age appropriate story or book before bed is great. Create a routine.

2. Be aware of what children see or witness in a day and talk about it. It is a myth that talking about fear will aggravate fear. The opposite is actually true.

‘Wow that was a bad accident on the tv, what did you think when you saw that? I will do everything to keep you safe’

3. In the daytime ask the child what might be worrying them. ‘Sleep helps us to grow strong, what stops you from getting the sleep you need?

Use an open ended question and respond with understanding and empathy. Take the response seriously. 

Eg ‘ wow that is scary, I can’t see it, but I understand if you can it must be really scary’

4. Use it as a teaching opportunity.      Teach the difference between fantasy and reality and use examples. If not taught the difference between fantasy and reality, fantasy can linger.

5. Avoid engaging in a conversation about over powering a beast or monster - ‘let’s kill the beast - or let’s lock it in the cupboard’ This type of talk actually reinforces the beast actually exists.

6. Active children need lots of exercise to burn lots of energy.

7. Some children benefit from having a night light, a cuddly toy or such. It is best the child choose what will help.

8. For children who fear or might fear an intruder, a safety check might help - let’s check the windows and doors are all locked.

9. With cool nights coming on show the child how to keep warm and pull up the blanket.

10. Reassure your child often that your role is to keep them safe and teach them to be safe - this allows them grow and learn feeling safe.

Fear often dissolves and disappears as the child gets more control. For every family the best strategies will differ. A consistent empathic response most often works and it passes, but if not it is important to visit the doctor. 



Marie Stuart

Marie Stuart

State Social Inclusion Coordinator QLD for Goodstart Early Learning

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