By: Heather Rotolo, LCSW, Clinical Director-Behavior Clinic, Penfield Children’s Center
It’s very normal for a young child to be afraid of the dark. While you as the parent might continually assure him there are no monsters under his bed, that reassurance does little to quell his fears in the middle of the night. And, if the child has a nightmare as well, he can wake up in a panic.
Every child’s needs are different; here are some tried and true ways of helping children overcome their fear of the dark.
- Add light. While completely turning on your child’s room light could keep him up all night, adding soft light from a nightlight or twinkle lights can help. Children can still get a good night’s sleep without the room being completely dark.
- Turn off scary movies and television shows, especially before bedtime. While these programs might be fun to watch, they can create anxiety, especially for young viewers. Pay attention to the content of what your child is watching. Even PG and G-rated films can be scary.
- Limit sugary snacks in the evening. Sugar activates brain activity and can cause a child to be on “high alert.” If your child is hungry before bed, foods such as cheese, yogurt, hummus and whole grains are best. Snacks high in protein and fiber will keep your little one full throughout the night.
- Establish a bedtime routine. A warm bath, story time and soft music can help your child wind down. Bedtime routines not only prepare your child’s body and mind for sleep, but allow him to transition from awake to asleep in a predictable way.
- Take a moment to reflect on how you felt as a child. Were you afraid of the dark? What did your parents do or what do you wish they would have done to help you feel comfortable in the dark? It is natural for children to be afraid of the dark or feel uncomfortable sleeping by themselves. It can also be helpful to put a plan in place (and stick with it!) for how you will help your child if he wakes up afraid in the middle of the night. Is it best for you to lay with him until he falls back asleep? Or, can you offer him a glass of water and some comfort before going back to your room? Figure out what works for your family.
It can also help to have a discussion with your child about other concerns or overwhelming feelings he is having during the day, such as trouble with friends or difficulties in school, as these situations can trigger a child to feel uncomfortable alone at night.
There is also a wealth of children’s books that you can purchase or check out from the library that address the topic of being afraid of the dark. Assure your child that he is safe and that you are always there for him. It can also be helpful to let him know that he should not be ashamed of his fear; it’s a normal part of childhood and growing up.
How have you helped your child when he is afraid of the dark?