When I was eight or nine, bedtime was tough. I vividly remember lying perfectly still under the covers and taking care not to let an arm or even a toe creep out from under the blankets. I didn’t know what would happen if a limb escaped the sheets, but I knew it wouldn’t be good.
Halifax psychologist Ann Marie Joyce says that a fear of the dark is an instinct we’re all born with. It keeps us safe when we’re walking down empty streets late at night and stops us from bashing our shins on the coffee table in the dark.
But for kids, the dark can be terrifying. The anxiety normally kicks in between the ages of two and four. “It starts when they begin to see things in the dark,” says Ann Marie. “They can’t see anything, so they populate their world with monsters and ghosts.”
Since these fears are linked to the development of imagination, they change as children grow. Preschool children are more likely to worry about monsters, then they start school and imagine ghosts, and when they’re a little older still, they begin thinking about burglars.
Although there are nights when it seems like the bedtime routine will never end, Ann Marie says there are a lot of things we can do to help:
- Stick to a consistent, calming routine.
- Avoid stimuli such as TV shows and video games. Research suggests that exposure to lights from television and computer screens can interfere with sleep.
- Replace the screen time with calming activities such as reading, relaxation exercises or a bath.
After Lights Out
After the bedtime routine has wound down, it’s time to turn out the lights. Since children cherish that special quiet time with Mom or Dad, they often stall, and a fear of the dark can make a great excuse. Trust your instincts; you’ll recognize real fear from their body language and facial expressions. If you think they’re stalling, start providing a half an hour of special time earlier in the evening.
If they’re genuinely afraid, Ann Marie recommends focusing on the positive. Tell your children that they’re brave, but don’t provide excessive reassurance. Trying to convince them that monsters aren’t real or that burglars won’t break in doesn’t much help, but making sure they know you’ll protect them will usually go a long way.
Most importantly, stay calm. It’s easy to get upset when your kids are upset, so let the more relaxed parent deal with the situation. And remember, there’s an end in sight – fear of the dark usually ends around age 12. Even I grew out of my fear of lurking nocturnal monsters.
But I still don’t sleep with my closet door open.
Quick Tips for a Fear-Free Room
Halifax psychologist Ann Marie Joyce says making a few small changes to a child’s room can make a big difference. Check out these three easy ideas for a better bedtime:
- Add a little light: And we really do mean little. While a nightlight is a great idea, avoid turning on a hallway or overhead fixture. Too much light interferes with sleep.
- Less is more: The less cluttered the room is, the better. Each item in your child’s room has the potential to become something much scarier when the lights go out, so limit the possibilities by helping them keep their room tidy.
- Keep the noise down: An unexpected noise can trigger a whole new set of fears. If your child’s room is in a noisier area of the house, consider setting up a fan or a white noise generator.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, May 2014.