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Why Kids Are Afraid of the Dark—and How We Can Ease Their Fears

scared little girl in her bedWe’re all afraid at some time or other (certainly working moms have fears about our kids, our careers). Fear is a natural and necessary emotion that sends us a warning signal to be careful and cautious. These feelings reach down to our nerve endings and stimulate all of our senses, putting us on high alert, which can feel so scary.

Does this sound familiar to you? If so, it will be easier to relate to your own child’s fear of the dark or new places. Even if you find these fears a little silly or unfounded, it is important to empathize with your child. The abilities to navigate fearful feelings, comfort oneself and develop coping mechanisms are critical for long-term healthy growth and well-being.

Our vivid and unbridled imaginations can conjure up so many amazing things, both beautiful and scary, depending on the conditions and environment. Our brains are built to make patterns and systems, and we are always using the information we receive to connect the dots and create a narrative to explain our experiences. This is why lights outside our windows cast monster-like shadows on the bedroom wall and the clanging of old pipes summons ghostly images.

Today’s screens (from phone to TV) often provide content within a high-pitched, emotional context designed to surprise and shock. When impressionable kids (and even adults) are exposed to highly stimulating media that is fraught with anxiety, a sense of the uncertainty and dread can create a foundation of insecurity easily triggered by new or unfamiliar environments like dark places.

Of course, kids often express fear of the dark at bedtime. This is actually a great time to help them manage these uncomfortable feelings. With time and patience these fears eventually subside. What you can do:

Let kids know they’re safe. This is a critical first step, because when children feel unsafe they can’t think clearly. This type of stress leads to lack of sleep and cognitive strain. So hold your child. Tell her she’s safe but that you want to know more about why she feels scared. Tell her you’re not going anywhere until she’s ready.

Help them take control. Ed Emberley wrote a fantastic book called Go Away, Big Green Monster!, which literally takes the monster apart through a clever die-cut book, one page at a time. This is a fantastic metaphor for how to break down things that are scary and deal with them in bite-size pieces. The end of the book reads, “And don’t come back unless I say so!” Now how empowering is that!

Have them eat for sleep. Food plays a powerful role in our body and brain chemistry. Sugar and processed foods activate the brain. So try evening snacks like almonds, which contain tryptophan and magnesium and reduce muscle and nerve function. Cheese and other dairy products are also a great choice. Chamomile or lemon balm tea with a drop of honey is soothing and snooze-promoting.

Avoid anxiety-producing media. Watch what your kids are watching. You’ll notice how exposure to the news or a program that is not well-suited to their temperament or age will seed the soil for fear of the dark or the unknown. If this happens, talk about it and explain that it is only a program and not real life. Better yet, try to keep these experiences out of your child’s life.

Talk, draw and strategize in lots of ways. You can try to pretend that being afraid isn’t a big deal, but it won’t go away unless you address it—sort of like the monster in the closet. If your child is afraid, take him at his word. Look under the bed and open the closet. Talk through what he’s feeling and why he’s feeling it. Sometimes it helps to have your child draw a picture of his fears and encourage him to talk you through the images. Strategize ways to eliminate the fear: What about a flashlight in bed? How about a nightlight? Would a walkie-talkie work?

Use magical thinking. Our children’s wonderful imaginations create the monsters and dreadful fears, but they can also help to make them go away. Ask your child to imagine what she would do to change the story. How would she get the fog to lift? How would she use her magical powers to get the troll out from under the bed?

Create a bedtime ritual. Predictability and regular routines help kids feel safe and secure. Depending on the fear, the ritual could include one check behind the door and leaving the bathroom light on. Set up a system, like agreeing to check on your kids every 15 minutes until they are fast asleep. The tone you set matters. While we’re all tired at the end of the day, bedtime should be a loving and warm tuck-in and a kiss goodnight. Let your kids know what a great job they have done ending the day.

By: Susan Magsamen is an award-winning writer and a learning expert. She is an Educational Advisory Board member for The Goddard School, senior vice president of Early Learning at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and the founder of Curiosityville, an interactive personalized learning world for young children and families.