|Dear Professor Mom,
My three-year-old son has recently developed a strong
fear of the dark. He often refuses to go to bed because
he is afraid when we turn the lights out. We have tried
giving him a night-light in his room, but he still cries
and has a hard time settling. What can we do to help
him with this fear?
Sincerely, Mom in the Dark
As children get older, they start to develop fears. Children who didn’t seem to have a care in the world are now learning what it means to be afraid of something. The more children explore their world, the more they look for answers to explain what they are experiencing.
One of the most common fears in children is the fear of the dark. The dark seems so mysterious and scary when you are young, because everything changes in the dark – or at least it seems to. There are more shadows, and things that look harmless in the light take on new forms (in your child’s imagination) in the dark.
The dark is not the only common fear in young children; they can also be afraid of dogs, spiders and many other things. The way that you approach your child’s fears will ultimately help in overcoming them. Here are some tips on helping your child face their fears:
Validate their feelings
As parents, we often feel a bit helpless when it comes to dealing with our child’s fears. So instead of validating their feelings, we tend to ignore or dismiss them. When our child says, “I am afraid of the dark,” or “There is a monster under my bed!” We say things like, “There is nothing to be afraid of,” and “There is no such thing as a monster.”
We often look for a simple solution for a more complex problem. If your child confides their fears in you, this is a good thing. Allow them room to fully express what they are afraid of before looking for a solution. The more you know about their fears, the better. Tell them you understand why they are afraid and that you will work on a solution together that will help them feel safe.
Share your own fears with them
It is helpful for children to understand that fears are normal and that we all have them. Talk to them about something you are afraid of (age-appropriate). You can also talk to them about fears you had as a child and what helped you face that fear. Perhaps you were afraid of dogs as a child. And you overcame that fear by playing with a friend’s puppy and then gradually trusting dogs that you knew.
This will support your child to problem-solve their own situation and help them deal with their fear. It will also help them to see that their fears will seem less scary the more they talk about it, and that it is possible to overcome them.
Do your research
Knowledge is power. The more your children understand about something, the less they will fear it. For example, if your child has a fear of spiders, try looking up information about spiders on the Internet to share with your children. Look at pictures of children holding spiders and share the facts about how harmless (most) spiders are. Talk about what spiders eat and how they can make webs. Your child may even start to think spiders are cool!
Read children’s books on the topic of their fears
There are many great children’s books that deal with fears. You will be able to find ones that are specific to your child’s fears at the library or local book store.
Read these books together with your child. Discuss what the characters did to overcome their fear. Ask open-ended questions: what was their fear? What did they do in order to feel safe? How did they feel once they faced their fear?
This will reinforce that fears are normal and that we all have them. It will also give them ideas on how to problem-solve these situations for themselves, empowering them to face their fears.
Allow them time to work through their fears
It is tempting to try and solve our children’s problems for them. In the long run, it is better for our children to work through these fears in their own time. That doesn’t mean they need to do it alone, just that they may need more time to figure these things out.
Fears are normal; we all have them. Dogs and spiders can seem very scary to a small child – and the dark can be a bit daunting, even as an adult. Learning to acknowledge these fears and overcome them will help build your child’s confidence and problem-solving skills.
If you find your child’s fears are debilitating or seem to consume their thoughts, consider speaking to a health care professional.
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