Fear of the dark, like most other phobias, is an irrational fear that affects a person’s ability to react to situations or circumstances. Many children develop or express a fear of the dark at some point in their development, usually triggered by a specific situation such as; watching a scary movie, hearing ghost stories, or being introduced to fictional characters such as the bogey man or monsters in the closet.
Overcoming and handling a fear such as this takes empathy and some patience, but with a little effort, most individuals are able to conquer their fear of the dark quickly and effectively.
As a parent, it is important that you take a child’s expression of fear, be it of the dark, spiders, or what have you, seriously. Fear is an emotion. Until they are given the tools to control and overcome their fears, they will react to the stimuli in an emotional way. Nervousness, crying, insomnia, and in extreme cases, panic attacks are nature’s way of telling you that this is a serious situation and should be dealt with in a caring and supportive manner.
Talk to your child about his or her fear. Ask questions like: What is it about the dark that frightens you? What do you think might happen in the dark? Determine if an outside factor, like a sibling, movie, or story heard has initiated this fear. Most importantly let the child know that you will safeguard them, and help them get through this fear response.
Desensitizing your child may be the next step. Offer the use of a night-light, but slowly introduce them to a darker and darker environment in a safe and non-threatening way. Make sure the steps are small, and at the child’s own pace. Perhaps leave a hall light on, with the door to their room open, and night after night, close the door a fraction of an inch more. Create a reward system for your child, each night that they progress in the darker and darker environment may get them closer to getting their favorite ice cream for dessert!
Don’t belittle your child, or force the issue. You want to build their confidence to conquer not only this fear but also any other stressful situations they may face in the future! Congratulate them on their ability to keep trying, and boost their self-esteem in other ways all throughout the day. By the time they go to face the dark, they will see it through the eyes of a more confident child, and be able to step closer to overcoming the fear entirely.
Should this fear build, and the child’s response to it, in spite of slow desensitizing, becomess more and more extreme, see your doctor. Monitor their diet to see if late-night sugars or other physical or psychological factors are working against his or her ability to overcome this fear. Get the whole family involved, and make sure siblings are being supportive, and that no one is putting a negative spin on your child’s expression of his/her fears. There should be no name-calling or insinuations that any phobia is a sign of weakness or immaturity.
Also, make sure that your child is receiving positive attention from you in other situations throughout the day. If your child feels that the only quality time they spend with you is in relation to this fear, they may continue the phobia as a means of gaining your attention and support.
Adults with the same phobia also react to the dark negatively most often due to a traumatic experience or association with darkness. As an adult, dealing with the cause of fear is the key to overcoming it. Counseling sessions with a therapist may help adults interpret their fears and recognize the contributing factors.
Once the fear is dissected, and the originating cause is determined, they too can begin to desensitize themselves, and provide themselves with reasonable safety measures that will keep the fear from overwhelming and interfering with normal life.